For the first time since the presidential election of 2000, Republicans are engaged in a heated competition to see who will emerge as the party's presidential nominee in 2008. So far, the race has taken some surprising turns, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone.
A recent poll showed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani the top choice among Republican presidential contenders. Giuliani led Arizona Senator John McCain by a margin of 44 to 21 percent, even though McCain had long been considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2008.
Many political commentators have argued that Giuliani will have trouble winning the Republican race because conservative voters dislike his support for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control measures.
But, so far, Giuliani is defying expectations, and many conservatives seem to like the leadership qualities he demonstrated in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, when he emerged as a national figure.
Giuliani recently spoke to a large group of is to figure out who do you believe the most, and what do you think are the most important things for this country at a particular time. We do believe in many of the same things."
Giuliani's early rise in the polls has come at the expense of Senator McCain. Some conservatives are also wary of McCain for his support of reform efforts in the areas of campaign finance and immigration, and McCain was one of the few Republican presidential contenders who did not address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
"Over the last several months, McCain has lost ground, Giuliani has gained ground," said Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "I do not think that means that Giuliani will be the nominee, but it does suggest that a lot of Republicans still have doubts about John McCain."
McCain is working to recapture the political momentum he sparked when he ran a close race against then Texas Governor George Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries.
Mr. Bush eventually overtook McCain that year and went on to win the presidency.
But McCain is now one of the president's biggest supporters on the war in Iraq, and he acknowledges his political fate in 2008 may be tied to whether the U.S. can ultimately prevail in what has become an unpopular war domestically.
"I believe that this new general and this strategy, which is long overdue, can succeed," he said. "And, we will know at least some indicators in the early months [of the deployment], but we may not know some others for quite a period of time."
Political analysts say McCain's support for the new strategy is a gamble, given the polls that suggest most Americans disapprove of the policy.
Tom DeFrank is Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News and a regular guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.
"It [recent poll] showed that one third of the country [of those polled], 33 percent, are less likely to vote for McCain because of his posture of support for the Iraq war," he said. "And that, I think, has really hurt McCain, and, I think, has stunned him and his advisers."
Other Republican contenders are working hard to broaden the nomination battle beyond McCain and Giuliani.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won a test vote at the conservative conference in Washington, finishing ahead of Giuliani, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and McCain.
"Now is the time, this is the place, for us to lead a great coalition of strength for our families, for our future, for America," he said. "God Bless the United States of America!"
Romney is one of several candidates hoping to sharpen their appeal to conservative voters, who make up the most significant bloc of support within the Republican Party.
Another Republican contender, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, sees a void in the Republican field in that no single candidate has a lock on the support of conservative voters.
"The theme might be, 'Dude, where is my candidate?' Well, I would like to think that maybe he is standing in front of you," he said.
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway says the wide-open battle for conservative support will help the Republican Party in the 2008 election.
"And as a conservative, I would like to see a bloody, bruising, competitive, let it all hang out primary where people are forced to come to forums like this and look you in the eye and tell you who they are and what they think and where they are going to lead this great nation," she said.
The lack of a unifying conservative candidate in the Republican field could provide an opening for others to get into the race, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich got a positive reception at the conservative conference, and says he will decide by September whether to enter the nomination battle.
"All three [top] Republicans have significant weaknesses," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes an independent political newsletter in Washington. "Even the Democratic frontrunners have weaknesses. So, although there are frontrunners and there are top tiers [of candidates], I think that many people think that, particularly on the Republican side, there is an opportunity for maybe somebody else to cut through."
Analysts also say the 2008 presidential race has intensified much earlier than most people expected. The first caucus and primary elections are still 10 months away.