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The Boston Globe

Politics

Suffolk poll: Romney still in lead in N.H.

Despite his new status as frontrunner in the Republican presidential race, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will have a difficult time catching up with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, according to a new Suffolk University/7NEWS poll.

The poll also found that former Utah governor Jon Huntsman – who has staked his campaign on a strong performance in New Hampshire – is finally seeing results from his hard-fought ground campaign. The poll of likely voters in New Hampshire’s Jan. 10 Republican presidential primary found Romney maintaining a strong lead with 38 percent of the vote, followed by Gingrich at 20 percent, Huntsman at 13 percent, and Texas Representative Ron Paul at 8 percent. The rest of the candidates were below 3 percent. Only 11 percent of voters said they were undecided.

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Romney’s lead has dropped – from 27 points in mid-November to 18 points now. But winning New Hampshire would still be a “daunting task” for Gingrich, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted the poll. “A lot of things would have to fall perfectly for Gingrich, and even if he won all of the 11 percent undecided…he’d still trail by 7 points,” Paleologos said.

Voters are not likely to swing from Romney toward Gingrich. Romney had the most loyal cadre of supporters – 58 percent said they were unlikely to change their minds. Gingrich could gain some votes if Paul loses support, based on the poll’s question on the respondents’ second choices, according to Paleologos. But if Huntsman loses support, those voters would swing more heavily toward Romney. For Huntsman, the poll shows him finally breaking into the double digits, and overcoming Paul to take third place.

Huntsman has put all his efforts into a grassroots campaign in New Hampshire with the goal, he says, of “beating market expectations.” Paleologos said the key for Huntsman will be independent voters. “They control Huntsman’s political future right now,” he said. Huntsman received support from 20 percent of independents, coming in second to Romney in that group. The poll also showed Romney’s strengths and weaknesses. Compared to Gingrich, Romney was seen as more trusted to fix the economy (59 percent to 20 percent); better at bringing America together (62 percent to 18 percent); and considered to have the personality best suited to be president (70 percent to 16 percent).

Voters thought Gingrich would do a better job with foreign policy (46 percent to 34 percent). Voters also thought Romney was a bigger flip-flopper than Gingrich (41 percent to 25 percent). The biggest concerns voters had about Gingrich were that he had too much “baggage” from his past (16 percent) and that he was not trustworthy (13 percent.) The biggest worry about Romney was that he is a “flip-flopper” (19 percent). Another 8 percent thought Romney was too moderate. The survey of 400 likely voters was conducted Dec. 10-13 and has a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com.

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