US Republican contenders locked in tight battle

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WASHINGTON, Sep 20 (Reuters) After months of campaigning, millions of dollars spent and hundreds of speeches, Republican presidential candidates are locked in a tight bunch with none emerging as the clear-cut leader.

Party strategists and nonpartisan political experts say the race for the Republican nomination for the November 2008 election is muddled chiefly because unlike many previous election cycles, there is no sitting vice president or obvious party leader seeking the White House that the party can rally around.

It has left a situation where any one of at least four candidates has a shot at emerging as the winner -- Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and John McCain -- but it could take months of battles.

''Republicans are rewriting the playbook this year,'' said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. ''The party that always knew who was up next, this year has no idea.'' Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said the Republican race is so close there is an outside chance that no candidate will have a clear majority going into the party's nominating convention next September in Minnesota.

''None of the candidates hit all of the issues the way a lot of Republicans would like,'' Black said.

Giuliani, the former New York mayor, has a slight edge in national polls over the rest of the field, but has been unable to break out of the pack and has seen his lead fade some in recent weeks.

This is unlike the Democratic side, where New York Sen Hillary Clinton has a double-digit lead over top competitors Sen Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen John Edwards of North Carolina and it hasn't changed much in months.

NO ONE ON INSIDE TRACK A new Reuters/Zogby poll has Giuliani leading the field with 26 percent.

But the ability of Thompson, a former Tennessee senator and Hollywood actor, to rise to second place at 24 percent about two weeks after stepping into the campaign showed the volatility of the Republican race.

And Thompson has gotten a bounce in the polls despite a campaign roll-out that many experts in Washington considered uninspiring.

Arizona Sen McCain, fighting money problems and tied closely to President George W Bush's Iraq war and immigration policies, was third at 13 per cent.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney was fourth with 7 percent nationally in the Reuters/Zogby poll.

In both parties, about 20 per cent of likely voters said they had not made up their minds, leaving plenty of room for the races to shift.

Each candidate has different strategies aimed at gaining sufficient strength in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to survive until February 5, when more than a dozen states, including California, Texas and New York, are expected to pick party nominees.

Romney hopes to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire to springboard to the top. Giuliani has a more national strategy. Thompson expects the South will boost him. McCain is centering his hopes on New Hampshire.

''I don't think anybody has an inside track,'' said a prominent Republican official with close ties to all the campaigns. ''They all have a very specific strategy on how to win. If you talk to them, they are all happy with where they are.'' A half dozen other Republican candidates who barely register in the polls harbor hopes they can break out of the pack in the early voting states to challenge the leaders.

One unifying theme for the party is the specter of the return of Hillary and Bill Clinton to the White House. Republicans lately have been lobbing attacks at her almost daily, believing average Republicans do not want her elected.

''I think the Republican Party enters this contest as a clear underdog,'' said Black. ''To the extent that Republicans can get motivated at all to get energized, they need a fighting challenge.'' Reuters SKB GC1731

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