While Hillary Clinton remains the favorite for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination next year, Republicans are still searching for a frontrunner at this early stage in the 2008 election process.  VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

A recent opinion poll by the Associated Press and the Ipsos survey research firm summed up the Republican dilemma in the race for president.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani led the Republican field with 21 percent, followed by former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, who has yet to officially enter the race, at 19 percent.

Arizona Senator John McCain placed next with 15 percent, followed by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who drew 11 percent support.

But the surprising thing about the poll was that 25 percent of those surveyed were either unsure who they preferred or wanted none of the candidates listed, suggesting a wide open race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination next year.

Part of the reason for this is that there is no logical heir apparent in line for the Republican Party nomination in 2008.

President Bush is limited to two terms by the U.S. Constitution and Vice President Dick Cheney has said he will not be a candidate.

Political experts thought that meant that Senator McCain, who challenged President Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries, would be the likely frontrunner.

But for a variety of reasons, things have not worked in McCain's favor.

John McIntyre edits a political website called RealClearPolitics.com.

"There is just an animus among conservative voters towards John McCain," he said.  "So even though he was sort of the heir apparent, he just was not a natural fit for rank and file base Republican voters.  And so that is why you see a vacuum out there because after John McCain, there really was not an heir apparent."

A new Zogby public opinion poll has former Senator Fred Thompson leading Giuliani 22 percent to 21 percent, with Romney and McCain trailing behind.

Thompson is expected to enter the race soon and would be a fresh alternative for social conservative voters, an important constituency within the Republican Party.

Analyst John McIntyre says the Romney campaign in particular has been courting social conservatives, and that Thompson's expected entrance into the race could have an impact.

"This is where Fred Thompson is a real problem for his [Romney's] campaign because now, suddenly, conservative Republican base voters who were not enamored with Giuliani's social liberalism on some positions, did not like McCain, they have an option in Fred Thompson.  A real option, a conservative option that they like, so I think at the end of the day, Romney is who it hurts the most," he noted.

Opinion polls at this early point in a presidential campaign are notoriously unreliable.  But experts say Thompson's quick rise in the polls even before he declares his candidacy is a sign of his potential strength among Republican voters.

Washington-based analyst Stuart Rothenberg sees a three-way battle for the Republican nomination between Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson.

"All three having a chance, but probably you would have to regard Thompson, even though he would be a late entry, as the kind of guy who, if he does what people think he might, would possibly be the best fit for the party," he said.

Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore recently dropped out of the Republican race, leaving a total of nine contenders.

The others include former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, California Congressman Duncan Hunter, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas.