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A Very Fluid Republican Race

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro
The new set of MSNBC/McClatchy/Mason-Dixon polls indicate that it's now a mistake to call only Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney the two frontrunners. With Mike Huckabee in the lead in two of the GOP's big three states (Iowa and South Carolina), it's getting harder to leave his name out of the frontrunner mix.

Huckabee's momentum is no longer an Iowa story, his personal ratings and poll standings have popped in all of the key early states. Here's a quick rundown:

Iowa: just three candidates registered double-digits. Huckabee nabbed 32%, Romney followed with 20% and Thompson was third with 11%. McCain was in fourth with 7% and Giuliani nabbed just 5%, his worse showing in any Iowa poll this year.

New Hampshire: Romney's once insurmountable lead appears, well, surmountable. He leads the field with 25%, followed by Giuliani at 17%, McCain gets 16% and Huckabee edges into double-digits with 11%. Nearly one in six voters are undecided.

South Carolina: The former Arkansas governor leads a very competitive primary with 20%, followed very closely by Giuliani at 17%, Romney at 15%, Thompson at 14% and McCain at 10%. Nearly one in five S.C. Republicans are undecided, highlighting the fluidity of the race.

One more macro thought: There might be a Ron Paul Revolution, but it is not occurring among GOP voters. He has a net-neg fav/unfav in all three states. The good news for Paul, his name I.D. is rising very fast, the bad news, he may not have a lot of room to grow beyond the committed group of supporters he already has. If he does want to see his support grow, he may need to reintroduce himself to some of these Republicans who view him so unfavorably.

Let's get into the weeds of these GOP state polls, all of which were conducted Dec. 3-6. Each survey is of 400 likely caucus or primary voters with a margin of error of 5%.

This poll gives the clearest picture out of any other Iowa poll we've seen of where Huckabee's support is coming from. He gets support from 32% of likely caucus-goers, but gets 42% of the born-again vote and 38% of those who attend church weekly. And perhaps the clearest place that shows Huckabee's advantage is on the issue of abortion. Seven in 10 Iowans believe it should be prohibited or restricted, and he leads by more than 20 points in that category.

Huckabee's lead is across the board. He even leads all the candidates – 36-20 over Thompson – as being the candidate with the best chance to win in November. Incredibly, Huckabee is even seen as the best on national security and terrorism and immigration as well as moral and family issues – the top three issues to Iowa voters. Romney's only advantage on the issues is on taxes.

Of the front-runners, Giuliani is not that well liked in Iowa; he has the lowest favorability of the top-tier candidates and the highest unfavorable of all the candidates except Ron Paul.

Independents' support stands out here. McCain does not lead among them. In fact, he's essentially tied with Rudy and trails Romney by double digits. Notably, Romney leads by a wider margin among indies than he does among Republicans.  
Rudy is second here, but his opening could be that strength and leadership is what NH voters are looking for in a candidate. Rudy leads that category, albeit only slightly, over Romney. Romney, on the other hand, has more solid numbers in experience and values. Rudy lags far behind in values.

New Hampshire is a different story on the issues for Huckabee. He lags on the three top categories – national security/terrorism, immigration and taxes/government spending.

Finally, it appears Romney's message on immigration is resonating, where seven in 10 believe the government should take a hard line, which is far more than in Iowa. Romney leads that category by 10 points.

Giuliani may not line up with S.C. voters' values, but he's seen as the strongest leader, which is very important issue in the state – within margin of error for top issue (along with values, which Huckabee leads).

Interestingly, and possibly highlighting how unknown Huckabee really is with GOP voters, the former Arkansas governor is seen as being the most hard line on immigration here and in Iowa. Could some of his support erode once more voters learn the specifics of his immigration stance?