Surging former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee Wednesday topped the latest opinion poll of the US Republican presidential field in the crucial leadoff voting state of Iowa.
Just 36 days before the state's fabled caucuses nominating contests, the ordained Baptist minister came in ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has led Iowa surveys for months.
The Rasmussen Reports poll had Huckabee leading on 28 percent of a sample of likely Republican caucus goers, with Romney second on 25 percent.
National front-runner Rudolph Giuliani was in third place in the midwestern state with 12 percent, and former actor and Senator Fred Thompson was the only other candidate in double figures on 11 percent.
Given the poll's 3.5 percentage point margin of error, the race remains statistically deadlocked in Iowa, but Huckabee's momentum has also been picked up by other opinion surveys ahead of the January 3 caucuses.
However, it is also notoriously difficult to conduct accurate polls in Iowa, given the quirky nature of the caucuses, which require activists to show up in person at local political meetings scattered across the state.
"The race is far too close to call at this point," Rasmussen said in a commentary analyzing the poll on its website.
"However, the fact that Romney is no longer the clear front-runner in Iowa reflects a stunning change in the race."
A Strategic Vision poll published on Tuesday found that Romney retained a slim lead, 26 to 24 percent over Huckabee in Iowa.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll published last week found 24 percent of Republicans likely to attend the caucuses would support Huckabee, with Romney ahead on 28 percent.
Huckabee, a wisecracking darkhorse candidate who barely features in polls in key states outside Iowa, is hoping a strong showing in the caucuses will vault him into the top tier of the fluid Republican field.
The survey, published hours before the latest Republican presidential debate in Florida, showed Huckabee had consolidated support (48 percent) among evangelical Christians, a key Republican voting bloc, especially in Iowa.
Romney, who adheres to the Mormon religion, which some evangelicals view with suspicion, attracted 16 percent of the community's vote, according to the poll.
Huckabee, 52, was hitherto best known for being born in the same town, Hope, as former president Bill Clinton, and shedding more than 100 pounds from his once portly frame.
But he has built his surge in Iowa by exploiting disaffection among many Christian conservatives, who helped put the last three Republican presidents in the White House, with other top candidates.