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updated 9/6/2007 2:04:54 PM ET 2007-09-06T18:04:54
ON THE TRAIL

Just as Labor Day is not technically the end of summer (that's Sept. 21 for those busy closing down the pools this weekend), it's also not officially the beginning of campaign season. For one, the candidates have been campaigning at a pace that belies the actual date on the calendar. The shifting primary calendar also makes it impossible to "start the clock" for the actual number of days remaining until the first caucus/primary.

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Even so, there's something about September that makes everyone anxious to appoint front-runners. Using a combination of polling, history and the current primary calendar, one can make some early assumptions about who is currently in the lead. But, whether that lead will hold up is another question entirely.

On the GOP side, Rudy Giuliani leads in national surveys and his camp points out that since 1952 (according to Gallup data), the man leading the pack after Labor Day went on to win the nomination. Yet, Giuliani is way behind Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire. Fred Thompson, who is in second place in national polling, gets into the race officially on Sept. 6. And, more importantly, Giuliani has not convinced campaign watchers that his personal life or his record as New York City mayor will be able to withstand scrutiny once these campaigns get engaged.

With that in mind, the Hotline/Diageo poll [PDF] -- conducted by FD Strategies Aug. 22-26 -- focused on getting some insight into what Republican primary voters were looking for in a nominee. Obviously, one poll of 604 GOP primary voters is not going to give us all the answers. But, it does give us some early benchmarks on how Republican voters feel about the issues most critical in determining their vote.

What would seem like a big, red flag for Giuliani is the fact that a significant majority of those who consider themselves strong Republicans (read: likely primary voters) also define themselves as evangelicals (64 percent). More importantly, 83 percent of evangelical voters approve of the job Bush is doing, compared with 66 percent of non-evangelicals. Distancing yourself from Bush could mean distancing yourself from your most active base.

Even so, Giuliani is the best defined and most liked among evangelical voters. His 64-percent approval rating among this group is the highest among the other three Republicans tested: John McCain, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney.

In four-way matchup, Giuliani leads with 27 percent to 17 percent for Thompson, 15 percent for Romney and 12 percent for McCain. More importantly, Giuliani gets almost 25 percent of the evangelical vote. Thompson gets 16 percent, Romney gets 14 percent and McCain gets 13 percent.

When asked why they picked who they did, almost half said it was because they knew where the candidate "stands on the issues and I agree with his positions." This suggests that undermining Giuliani on his issue positions may not be as easy as some have thought. Plus, 40 percent of voters see his "position on terrorism/Homeland security" as his greatest strength. Not surprisingly, McCain is also well-defined, with 42 percent picking his positions on Iraq and on terrorism/Homeland Security as his best traits.

Meanwhile, Romney and Thompson are still blank slates for voters. More than half of voters can't name a defining trait for either one.

All is not rosy for Rudy. While he's seen as the candidate best able to beat the Democratic nominee -- especially if that nominee is named Hillary Rodham Clinton -- just 6 percent say that beating the Democratic nominee is the most important issue in determining their vote. His base is also not all that solid; 41 percent of his voters say they wished they had more choices for the nomination.

But does the fact that Rudy is the best defined of the top candidates make it easier for him to get the benefit of the doubt when questions are raised about his "moral and religious convictions"? And, just how effectively can the other candidates, who aren't as well defined, undermine him? Any student of campaigns knows that going on the attack as an unknown entity is risky as voters' first impression of that candidate will be defined by those negative ads.

Though questions about whether Thompson waited too long to start will continue to dog him, this poll shows that the race for the GOP nomination is far from gelled. But with no real identity among the GOP faithful, Thompson can't afford to make any mistakes -- the first impression voters get of him will be very hard for him to overcome.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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