Newt Gingrich’s surge has slowed and Ron Paul has gained momentum, but Mitt Romney remains the clear front-runner in New Hampshire with a little more than two weeks until the nation’s first primary, according to a new Boston Globe poll.
Romney has the support of 39 percent of the state’s likely Republican voters, a drop of 3 percentage points since last month but a strong indication he is weathering Gingrich’s national comeback in a state vital to his campaign.
In the closely watched contest for second place, Gingrich and Paul are tied with 17 percent each, just ahead of Jon Huntsman, who has the support of 11 percent of likely Republican voters.
But as the race hurtles toward the Jan. 10 primary, Paul has been gaining the most in New Hampshire. His support has risen by 5 percentage points since November, while Huntsman has picked up 3 percentage points in the last month and Gingrich has gained 2.
The momentum for Paul raises the prospect that he, not Gingrich, could emerge as the strongest early challenger to Romney if the Texas congressman can hold on to his lead in Iowa and capture second place in New Hampshire.
The remainder of the Republican field remains largely sidelined in New Hampshire. Rick Santorum is in fourth place, with support from 3 percent of the state’s likely Republican voters, followed by Michele Bachmann at 2 percent and Rick Perry at 1 percent.
Buddy Roemer, a former Louisiana governor, and Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, who have campaigned in New Hampshire but been ignored nationally, each drew less than 1 percent in the poll.
The live telephone survey of 543 likely Republican voters was conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center between Dec. 12 and Dec. 19, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
The survey indicated that, even as Gingrich has rebounded nationally from his campaign’s implosion last summer, the contours of the race have remained largely unchanged over the last two years in New Hampshire, where polls have consistently shown Romney with a sizable lead.
Andrew E. Smith, director of the Survey Center, attributed Romney’s enduring strength in New Hampshire to an electorate that is largely composed of moderate Republicans and independents, not party activists, evangelicals, and core conservatives who wield more influence in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida.
Romney, who owns a home in New Hampshire and has the backing of most of the party establishment, has campaigned frequently in the state, presenting himself as a sort of friendly neighbor from Massachusetts.
“The biggest benefit Romney has out of the New Hampshire electorate is that New Hampshire primary voters are nowhere near as ideological as primary voters in other states,’’ Smith said. “He is in a really strong position being near 40 percent in a multicandidate race.’’
Republican primary voters said Romney was the most likely to win the New Hampshire primary and the most likely to defeat President Obama next year. They also said he was the best equipped to address their biggest concerns, the federal deficit and unemployment.
Romney was the favorite not only of New Hampshire’s famously fickle independent voters but also of those who identified themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement - an encouraging sign for a candidate who has had a strained relationship with Tea Party leaders and activists.
Among self-identified Tea Party supporters in New Hampshire, 44 percent said they would vote for Romney, compared with 24 percent for Gingrich and 14 percent for Paul, who is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of the Tea Party movement.
The poll indicated that Gingrich, despite hiring staff and opening offices in New Hampshire, has failed to capitalize on the burst of positive attention he enjoyed after the Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, endorsed him on Nov. 27.
Indeed, the poll indicated that the former speaker is the most polarizing figure in the race: Twenty percent of Republican primary voters surveyed said they would not vote for Gingrich under any circumstances. No other candidate evoked such strong disfavor.
Paul, Bachmann, and Perry followed Gingrich as the most unpalatable candidates in the field. Romney was fourth in that category, despite the attention devoted to some conservatives who consider the former Massachusetts governor an unacceptable nominee.
New Hampshire voters said Romney, who has showcased his large family and solid marriage on the campaign trail, has the family values. But he was also named the candidate most likely to flip-flop on issues, indicating he remains vulnerable to that persistent line of attack.
“I would prefer someone a little more conservative,’’ said Joyce Conroy, a 72-year retired paralegal and registered Republican from West Lebanon, who responded to the poll and is leaning toward Romney. “But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.’’
Ultimately, she said, “He’s the most electable, and I couldn’t support Gingrich at all. Too much baggage. And as much as I like Ron Paul, I don’t think he’s electable. I just want someone who can beat that guy in the White House right now.’’
Huntsman, who has staked his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire, appears to be carving out his own niche.
The survey indicated the former Utah governor, who has chastised his party’s skepticism toward global warming and evolution, is drawing support from independent voters who identify themselves as Democrats but plan to vote in the Republican primary, and from voters who identify themselves as opponents of the Tea Party movement.
Paul, with his libertarian leanings, drew even more support from those two groups, even though he was also named the most consistently conservative candidate in the race.
Despite Romney’s lead, the contest in New Hampshire remains in flux. Only a quarter of likely voters have definitely made up their minds, and nearly half of all voters remain undecided.
In the heated days ahead, both Romney and Gingrich could be fighting over the same voters. The reason: A plurality of Romney supporters said Gingrich would be their second choice, and most Gingrich supporters said Romney would be theirs.
Eighty percent of voters said they were either extremely or very interested in the race, a higher rate than in 2007 and an indication that the energy that helped Republicans roll to historic victories in last year’s midterm elections remains alive in New Hampshire.
Yet voters are not always in tune with candidates on issues.
While most candidates have threatened to use military action to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, only 16 percent of voters said they would support an attack now. Sixty-three percent said the United States should continue economic and diplomatic efforts instead.
Most voters said illegal immigration is a very serious problem, but they were deeply divided over the hard-line stance taken by the candidates.
Forty-nine percent said they oppose giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, and 42 percent said they support that approach.
Asked about closing the deficit, voters in the famously antitax state said they would nonetheless prefer to raise taxes rather than cut Medicare or Medicaid.
Indeed, even though the candidates staunchly oppose tax increases, 61 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer to raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year, 57 percent said they would close some federal departments, and 53 percent said they would raise taxes on corporations.