CNN/TIME/ORC Poll: Gingrich Posts Massive Gains in Key Early States

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Anthony Behar / Sipa Press

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at the Union League Club, Dec. 5, 2011 in New York.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, once given up for dead in the Republican presidential primary, picked the right moment for a dramatic comeback. With less than a month to go until voting begins, Gingrich now leads the field of GOP contenders in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida and is within striking distance of the lead in New Hampshire according to a new CNN/TIME/ORC poll released on Wednesday.

In Iowa, Gingrich notches 33% support to Mitt Romney’s 20% among likely caucus goers. Gingrich leads Romney 43% to 20% in South Carolina. And in Florida, Gingrich is leading 48% to Romney’s 25%. These numbers show a meteoric rise: Since the last time this poll was conducted in late October, Gingrich has gained 35 points in South Carolina, 31 points in Florida, plus 23 points in Iowa. Most troubling of all for Romney, Gingrich has posted a 19-point gain in New Hampshire, once a stronghold for the former Massachusetts governor.

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Romney’s firewall has always been New Hampshire and without it, his candidacy could crumble. Though he still maintains a healthy lead there – 35% to Gingrich’s 26% — he’s down five points since the October poll. Romney has also lost five points in South Carolina and Florida, and four in Iowa.

Romney’s campaign has already begun to refocus its fire on Gingrich. It’s emphasizing “integrity,” something aides say Romney, who has been married to the same woman for 42 years, has in abundance. Gingrich, by comparison is on his third wife, with whom he had an affair while impeaching Bill Clinton for his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich also had ethics woes that eventually forced him from the House, not to mention a $1.6 million payday he reaped from consulting for Freddie Mac and a long history of moderate positions that could come back to haunt him – all potential ammunition for the Romney campaign. Romney, who has said he will step up media appearances in coming days, will need to deliver a punch before Gingrich’s momentum becomes unstoppable.

(PHOTOS: A Rich History of Mitt Romney)

There are some comforting numbers, if not good news, for the rest of the field. Half of all voters – 53% in Florida, 55% in Iowa, 48% in New Hampshire and 55% in south Carolina — say they still might change their minds, making Gingrich’s lead softer than it might appear. A gaffe or misstep could still hobble his candidacy. And many of Gingrich’s gains come from male voters. He leads among men in New Hampshire and by double digits in Florida and South Carolina. Romney, meanwhile, polls better with women across the board.

Gingrich’s dramatic surge is evidence of just how flighty Republican primary voters have become. His gains equal, almost exactly, the sum of Herman Cain’s support at its zenith, plus runoff from Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has continued to slide in the polls. Perry, who now polls at 3% in Florida, has lost 6 points in that state since October, as well as three points in South Carolina, where he now garners 8% support, two points in New Hampshire (2%) and one point in Iowa (9%).

(MORE: Can Gingrich Scale Up His Iowa Campaign?)

The only other candidate to reap some good news from these polls is Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who has made five-point gains in New Hampshire and Iowa since October, bringing him to 17% support in each state.

The survey by telephone of registered Republican voters likely to vote in the primaries was conducted between Nov. 29 and Dec. 6. In Florida, 446 voters were interviewed for a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. In Iowa, 419 voters were interviewed for a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. In New Hampshire, 507 voters were interviewed for a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. And in South Carolina, 510 voters were interviewed for a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. NOTE: Herman Cain was included in questioning until Dec. 3. The second choice of respondents who picked Cain has been counted as their first choice.