CNN deputy political director
HANOVER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- It's a dead heat in New Hampshire, according to a new poll of likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters.
Rudy Giuliani, center, has caught Mitt Romney, left, in New Hampshire, a poll found. John McCain, right, is third.
Mitt Romney's lead in the battle for the GOP presidential nomination in the all-important Granite State has evaporated, according to the results of a CNN/WMUR poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire.
The survey, released Wednesday, shows the former Massachusetts governor drawing support from 25 percent of Republican primary voters to 24 percent for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
That statistically insignificant 1 percentage point margin is a major change from CNN/WMUR's last New Hampshire poll, taken in July, when Romney held a comfortable 14-point lead over Giuliani. View poll results »
Giuliani is the front-runner in most national polls, although his lead has shrunk after former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson officially entered the GOP presidential race earlier this month.
But in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney has placed first in most polls. Other recent surveys showed a slight deterioration of Romney's lead and the new CNN/WMUR poll continues that trend.
Sen. John McCain finishes third in the poll, with 18 percent. The Arizona Republican gained 6 points since CNN/WMUR's July survey.
"This is an indication that McCain is back on message," said Paul Manuel, Director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "John McCain is showing some significant improvement. He had been left as a has-been and now he's back in the game."
New Hampshire was the site of McCain's biggest primary victory in his unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2000.
Manuel said McCain's numbers in the poll are on the rise because he's redefined his message and connected with New Hampshire voters over the past four weeks.
Thompson, a TV and film actor, is in fourth place in the survey, with 13 percent -- that's unchanged from the July poll.
Three weeks ago, Thompson announced on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" that he was officially jumping into the race after months of "testing the waters."
"If Fred Thompson wants to compete in the campaign he's got to get off Jay Leno and get into the town halls and start to meet people," Manuel said. "Going on Jay Leno perhaps makes sense for the national audience but it doesn't make sense for a state that has a long tradition of retail politics."
The other five major GOP presidential hopefuls remain in single digits in the new poll.
So what's the reason behind Romney's 9 point drop in New Hampshire?
"Romney maintains an advantage over Giuliani among Granite State conservatives; but Giuliani has regained the lead among moderate and liberal Republicans while Romney falls to third place with that group," said CNN polling director Keating Holland. In July, Romney had the edge among moderates and conservatives.
A plurality see Giuliani as the most likeable and the most electable Republican in the field, while McCain is seen as having the right experience to be president.
Thompson's favorable ratings have jumped in the wake of his official entry into the race. In April, 29 percent had a favorable opinion of him compared to 47 percent now -- but he has not been able to translate greater popularity into greater support. Part of the reason is that many New Hampshire voters are still unfamiliar with him. "Another reason might be his decision to bypass a Granite State debate -- a decision which 29 percent say would make them less likely to vote for Thompson," said Holland.
The poll also finds New Hampshire voters think Giuliani is the most likeable of the candidates. Twenty nine percent liked Giuliani best, followed by Romney with 25 percent.
"New Hampshire Republicans see different things in different contenders," said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.
"Who do they think is most likely to bring needed change? Romney," said Schneider, adding "They think McCain has the right experience and Giuliani has the best chance of beating the Democrats."
The CNN/WMUR poll also asked Republican voters about Newt Gingrich. The former Republican speaker of the House has flirted with the possibility of dropping his hat into the presidential ring and he remains one of the biggest question marks in the battle for the GOP presidential nomination.
With Gingrich in the race, the top contenders remain in a dead heat, with Romney at 23 percent and Giuliani at 22 percent. McCain follows at 17 percent with Thompson at 12 percent and Gingrich next at 7 percent.
One important point to bear in mind: Two-thirds of Republican primary voters say they are still trying to decide for whom to vote. Only one in eight say they have definitely made up their minds, so this poll cannot be a prediction of what will happen when New Hampshire votes in early 2008.
"There is no reason to count out any candidate just yet," said Holland, adding "If you think otherwise, just ask Bob Dole or George W. Bush how much predictive value exists in polls taken months before the notoriously fickle New Hampshire electorate makes up its mind."
The poll was conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center on September 17-24, 2007. Three-hundred-twenty-four New Hampshire residents who say they will vote in the 2008 Republican primary were interviewed by telephone. E-mail to a friend