TIME/CNN/ORC Poll: Romney Storms Ahead in South Carolina

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Callie Shell for TIME

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is joined by Sen. John McCain, right, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, center, during a rally at Charles Towne Landing in Charleston, South Carolina, Jan. 5, 2012.

In another sign of the front runner’s growing strength, Mitt Romney has taken the lead in South Carolina, according to a TIME/CNN/ORC poll released Friday.

The poll, which surveyed likely primary voters on Wednesday and Thursday, found Romney commanding 37% support, a 17-point gain since early December. He’s not the only one carrying momentum out of Iowa’s photo finish. Rick Santorum has surged 15 points, to 19%, picking up the largest chunk of Newt Gingrich’s shattered coalition. The former Speaker is still in the hunt with 18%, but that’s down from 43% in December.

Ron Paul’s share has doubled, to 12%, while Rick Perry’s has dwindled to a mere 5%.

The new data, which come a little more than two weeks before the Palmetto primary, confirm the broader contours of the GOP race. Romney’s solid position is strengthened by the splintering effect produced by his rivals — his 37% support is equal to that of Santorum’s and Gingrich’s combined. The largest remaining threat to Romney is a conservative bloc coalesced behind one candidate.

As of Friday, that simply isn’t happening.  Romney is getting solid shares of born-again Christians (35%), Tea Party supporters (32%) and self-described conservatives (37%). This is, however, South Carolina, notoriously one of the nastiest political battlefields in the U.S., and the anonymous backstabbing, radio spots, church fliers and super-PAC attack ads have yet to saturate the state. And a 49% plurality of likely voters said they are still open to changing their minds.  A New Hampshire surprise could tilt expectations. Santorum might just need more time. But for now, everything’s coming up Romney.

Methodology: The poll surveyed 1,519 adults, including 485 likely voters, by telephone on Jan. 4 and 5.  The sample was weighted to reflect statewide Census figures for gender, race, age, education and region of the state, and it carries an error margin of ±4.5 points.

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