Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is soaring in the early voting states, at the expense of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, according to two new NBC/Marist polls.
In Iowa, the NBC/Marist poll put Gingrich at the top of the Republican presidential pack with support from 26 percent of likely caucus-goers, up 21 points from October. Romney dropped 8 points since October, to 18 percent, putting him just one point ahead of Texas Representative Ron Paul. While Romney has campaigned in Iowa, which holds the first caucus Jan. 3, he has not made it a focus of his campaign.
In New Hampshire, however, where Romney is the strong favorite in the first-in-the-nation Jan. 10 primary, he has also shown a decline. Romney is still in the lead, with support from 39 percent of likely primary voters, but that reflects a six-point drop since October. Gingrich vaulted into second place, at 23 percent, a 19-point gain since October. Paul increased his support slightly, to 16 percent. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has staked his campaign on performing well in New Hampshire, is in fourth place with 9 percent.
The poll numbers reflect Gingrich’s new standing as a GOP frontrunner. Though his campaign appeared to collapse this summer, Gingrich has recently surged as the campaigns of fellow Republicans Texas Governor Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain have declined. Cain suspended his campaign Saturday.
Though Romney has tried to claim the conservative mantle, a full 60 percent of Republican voters in New Hampshire tagged him as “moderate” and another 10 percent considered him “liberal.” The numbers were similar in Iowa.
But at least in New Hampshire, Romney’s most obvious Achilles heel – his support for an individual mandate for health insurance in Massachusetts – may not matter as much. While 59 percent of Republicans said support for such a mandate would not be acceptable, even higher percentages of voters would reject a candidate who favors in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, as Perry does (83 percent), who would tolerate Iran building a nuclear weapon, as Paul does (84 percent), or who earned substantial fees advising Freddie Mac, as Gingrich did (61 percent).
And Republicans looking to defeat President Obama are not likely to rule Romney out anytime soon. The New Hampshire poll found that of all the Republican candidates, Romney is the only one likely to top Obama in the general election. The Iowa poll found Obama tied with Paul and beating the other Republicans.
Shira Schoenberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.