Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson, who confirmed his candidacy just last week, has bounced into the lead ahead of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the GOP presidential nomination, according to a new nationwide poll.

Rasmussen Reports’ daily Presidential Tracking Poll today shows the former Tennessee senator favored by 26 percent of likely Republican primary voters. Giuliani, who has been the frontrunner most of this year, is in second with 22 percent, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a distant third at 13 percent.

Scott Rasmussen, an independent pollster for more than a decade, noted that technically, the two remain in a tie, since the margin of error for the poll of 600-650 likely Republican primary voters is plus or minus four percent.

But just a week ago, prior to Thompson’s announcement confirming his candidacy, the positions were reversed, with Giuliani at 25 percent and Thompson at 22 percent.

A Rasmussen analysis of the results noted they came about even though Thompson has skipped multiple GOP presidential debates, including one in the key primary state of New Hampshire just last week.

In fact, published reports show the GOP debate drew 3.1 million viewers – the largest debate audience thus far in the 2008 race. But Thompson’s announcement on the Jay Leno television show the same night, drew 6 million.

“The early returns are encouraging for Thompson and his team,” the Rasmussen analysis said. “Despite the fact that his intentions have been far from a secret for a very long time, the actor and politician is enjoying a nice bounce in the polls since making his announcement.

“Thompson’s gains since announcing have come primarily among conservatives likely to vote in the Republican primary. In polling completed since his announcement, Thompson leads Giuliani by 12 points among conservative primary voters. That’s up from a five-point edge before the announcement. Conservatives account for more than 60 percent of GOP primary voters. Two-thirds of Republican voters view Giuliani as political moderate or liberal,” the analysis said.

The analysis noted Giuliani also probably cost himself some support by “proclaiming on CNN that illegal immigration is not a crime. That view is especially difficult in a Republican primary environment, but voters nationwide continue to have strong feelings on the need to improve border security and reduce illegal immigration,” it continued.

But the analysis said it’s still too early to be definitive.

“To date, [Thompson] has managed to avoid the withering grind of campaign events, questions, and debates that have challenged the other candidates. Now, he will have to compete on equal terms with the others he hopes to defeat,” it said.

“If his performance and organization can live up to the image he has created, Thompson could shock the political pundits who have their doubts about him. If not, the campaign may come down to a competition between Giuliani and Romney, with Giuliani having the edge,” the analysis concluded.

In addition to the daily tracking poll, Rasmussen also provides weekly results to give a longer-term overview. For the seven days ending Sunday, Thompson was at 24 percent while Giuliani was at 23 percent, also well within the 3 percent margin of error.

Following were Romney at 13 percent, John McCain at 12 percent, Mike Huckabee at 6 percent and four other candidates – Sam Brownback, Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo – who split 4 percent.

Seventeen percent remained undecided.

The survey showed little change in the race for the Democratic nomination. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was at 43 percent among likely Democratic primary voters, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was at 22 percent and John Edwards at 16 percent.

Rasmussen has been praised for its accuracy in previous elections.

“There is no question Rasmussen produces some of the most accurate and reliable polls in the country today,” noted University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato.

And Michael Barone, senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, said the 2004 and 2006 elections both showed “the best place to look for polls that are spot on is”

Rasmussen’s 2004 prediction in the presidential race projected both President Bush and John Kerry totals within half a percent of the actual figures.

Thompson has been in second place most of the past few months, even though he hadn’t officially entered the race. His aides originally said the announcement would come around the Fourth of July, then around Labor Day.

His supporters had expressed concern that he waited too long to enter the race, and evidence of campaign disorganization and staff turmoil have raised further questions among Republican insiders about whether Thompson has sufficient discipline and zeal or the ability to craft a message that separates him from the field.

The Alabama native was sent to the Senate after winning a 1994 special election in Tennessee to fill the unexpired term of Democrat Al Gore and was re-elected in 1996. He chose in 2002 not to seek re-election and has appeared in several Hollywood productions since.

He was one of the stars on the NBC television drama “Law and Order.” His movie appearances include “The Hunt for Red October” and “Barbarians at the Gate.”

Thompson served as an assistant U.S. attorney at the Justice Department from 1969 through 1972 and was the chief counsel to the Republican minority on the Senate Watergate Committee during its investigation prior to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

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