Washington -- Republicans antsy for a conservative standard-bearer in the presidential race have begun to rally behind Fred Thompson, propelling the former Tennessee senator to within hailing distance of the lead for the party's nomination, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll has found.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was first in the survey, with support from 27 percent of the Republicans and independents who said they plan to vote in the party's 2008 primaries.
Thompson, who plays a prosecutor on NBC's Law and Order, was second with 21 percent. Indications are that he will join the race within a month.
The two other major GOP contenders, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, were well behind the leaders, with McCain backed by 12 percent of those polled and Romney by 10 percent. No one in the rest of the crowded field got more than 10 percent.
Among the Democratic candidates, the race remained little changed since a Times/Bloomberg poll in April.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton maintained a solid lead at 33 percent, followed by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama at 22 percent. Third, with 15 percent, was former Vice President Al Gore, who continues to say that he has no plans to seek the office he barely lost in 2000. Fourth was former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at 8 percent.
Despite Clinton's lead, Obama was the strongest Democrat in hypothetical matchups with Republicans in the general election, running even with or well ahead of the GOP's top contenders.
Overall, the survey underscored the unsettled nature of the Republican contest, with voters splitting roughly along ideological lines.
Giuliani, whose views on abortion, gay rights and guns are to the left of many in his party, has built a wide base among moderates and independents. Thompson has drawn conservatives, particularly among the religious right.
Giuliani has faced heavy news media scrutiny for months but has kept his lead in national polls intact, though diminished.
Thompson, by contrast, is only starting to introduce himself. He has not parried with rivals in debates, as Giuliani and nine other Republicans have done three times this spring.
For months, many conservatives have been uneasy with their choices. The survey found that substantial numbers are gravitating toward Thompson, an opponent of abortion rights and gun control.
Giuliani continues to draw strength from his leadership as New York mayor after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. More than two-thirds of Republican-leaning primary voters rated a candidate's views on terrorism and national security as more important than stands on social issues. The top pick for those voters was Giuliani.
For McCain, the survey pointed to lasting problems with conservative Republicans. One in four would not vote for him under any circumstances, it found. Conservatives' complaints have included his opposition to President Bush's tax cuts and his backing for efforts to put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.
The poll found no gain for Romney despite a 60 Minutes profile, a Time magazine cover story and other national exposure.
Still, polls in Iowa and New Hampshire - early-voting states where Romney has campaigned heavily - put him in the top tier.
In the Democratic contest, Clinton's strong support among women, liberals, minorities and older voters has kept her in first place.
But a majority of Democrats and independents who said they plan to vote in the primaries said a candidate's ability to bridge partisan divides is more important than government and policy-making experience, and those voters favor Obama.
When the choices were narrowed to three, Clinton finished first with 42 percent, followed by Obama with 32 percent and Edwards with 20 percent.
The hypothetical general election matchups did not include Thompson because he has not formally entered the race. In many cases, top Democrats and the top Republicans were found to be locked in close contests.
The notable exceptions included Giuliani defeating Clinton, 49 percent to 39 percent, and Romney losing by double digits to Obama or Edwards. Also lopsided was Obama's margin over McCain, 47 percent to 35 percent.
Obama would defeat Giuilani, 46 percent to 41 percent, the poll found. Edwards also ran ahead of the former mayor, 46 percent to 43 percent.
The poll of 1,056 registered voters was conducted by telephone Thursday through Sunday. It included 408 Republican-leaning voters and 449 leaning toward the Democrats. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for all voters and plus or minus 5 points for voters in each primary.
Michael Finnegan writes for the Los Angeles Times.