CNN/TIME/ORC Poll: Gingrich Collapse Fuels Santorum Surge in Iowa, Solidifies Romney Lead in New Hampshire

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Kevin E. Schmidt / Quad-City Times / ZUMAPRESS.com

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks before a group of supporters at the Global Security offices in Davenport, Iowa, Dec. 19, 2011.

With less than a week to go until Republicans cast the first votes of the 2012 presidential race in Iowa, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas congressman Ron Paul remain atop the field there, even as the fortunes of their closest competitors are quickly changing, according to a new CNN/TIME/ORC poll released Wednesday.

Romney now leads the pack with support from 25% of likely Iowa caucus-goers, while Paul boasts 22%, both posting a five-point gain since early December. While Romney’s lead in Iowa is tenuous, his continued strength across the board raises the possibility that the establishment front-runner could win his party’s nomination in a clean sweep.

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Bolstering that possibility is the collapse of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led in Iowa with 33% less than a month ago, but has seen his front-runner status disintegrate under a torrent of negative advertising and now claims just 14% support. Some of his voters have scattered, providing small bumps to Romney and Paul as well as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry. But the biggest beneficiary of Gingrich’s collapse appears to be former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who’s rocketed into third place with 16%, a dramatic 11-point climb in three short weeks. Santorum now leads among born-again Christians, and is tied with Paul and Romney among self-described conservatives and Tea Party supporters. The surge by Santorum, who’s quietly made stops in each of Iowa’s 99 counties and won the endorsement of some of the state’s top evangelical leaders, only adds suspense to next week’s caucuses, the outcome of which remains incredibly unpredictable.

The race in New Hampshire, meanwhile, appears to have settled. Gingrich’s boomlet has subsided in the Granite State as well with his support there falling 10 points to 16% in the last month. But rather than splintering, almost all of those voters have swung to Romney, who maintains a commanding lead there with 44% backing, up nine points over the same time period. The rest of the field has remained static. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who gained some traction in recent months, failed to catch fire, merely edging up one point to 9%. And even as Paul has moved to the front in Iowa, his New Hampshire support remains at 17%, second to Romney and now ahead of Gingrich, but still far off the lead.

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With Gingrich’s downfall, Romney has also sealed his command of the electability argument in the minds of Republicans. A 41% plurality of likely Iowa caucus-goers say Romney has the best chance of beating President Obama in November, 24 points ahead of Gingrich and 27 points ahead of Paul. In New Hampshire, a  solid 63% majority of likely voters say Romney is the most electable; Gingrich is the only other candidate to even break double digits. Similarly, Republicans also think of Romney as the most presidential: 46% of Granite Staters say Romney best represents the personal characteristics and qualities a President should have, 30 points ahead of Paul, and 25% in Iowa say the same.  But while Romney may be winning Republican minds, in Iowa, Paul is winning their hearts; 22% say they’re most likely to agree with Paul on the issues that matter most, compared to 18% who say the same of Romney. The economy continues to dominate as the top issue even in the socially conservative Iowa electorate–55% rated issues such as abortion or gay marriage important, while 94% gave the same designation to the economy–which might explain the success of Ron Paul’s purist fiscal conservative appeal.

Even as the primaries approach, Republican voters remain flexible in whom they favor. Slim majorities in Iowa (54%) and New Hampshire (51%) now say they’ll definitely support their current pick, a new development since early December, but more than 40% in each state still say they may change their minds. That dynamic could shake things up in Iowa, where 64% and 55% of caucus-goers say they would consider supporting Perry and Bachmann respectively, leaving the top tier wide open to six candidates in all.  The opposite is true in New Hampshire, where a majority of likely voters say they would not consider supporting either candidate. For the time being, Romney’s commanding lead in every measured demographic and question in New Hampshire seems insurmountable. But nominating contests are battles for momentum:a strong finish by Paul or others in Iowa next week could quickly alter the landscape.

(MORE: Joe Klein’s Countdown to Iowa)

Methodology: The poll, conducted by telephone between December 21 and 27, surveyed 999 registered Republicans in Iowa, including 452 likely voters, who were identified by their stated intention to participate in the 2012 primary, interest in the campaign to date and voting history. The sample was weighted for gender, age, amount of time registered at the current address, region and population parameters of the respondents’ zip codes, and has an error margin of +/-4.5 percentage points. A total of 1,508 adults, including 543 likely voters, were interviewed by telephone over the same time period in New Hampshire. The sample was weighted for gender, race, age, education and region, and has an error margin of +/-4 percentage points.

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