THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, January 26, 2012
Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
One new poll in Florida's volatile presidential primary race showed that former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has moved into a dead heat with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney even as another suggested Gingrich's momentum has faded.
The results come a day before the final clash between the two candidates and their competitors for the nomination -- former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and Congressman Ron Paul -- before Florida voters head to the polls Tuesday.
According to a poll released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University, Gingrich has surged into a statistical dead heat with Romney, with the former front-runner now clinging to a 36-34 advantage. That is well within the poll's margin of error of four percentage points.
It's also a dramatic swing from the 12-point lead Romney held little more than two weeks ago. Quinnipiac surveyed 601 likely Republican voters from Jan. 19-23.
The numbers also appear to show Gingrich getting an even larger bounce from a dramatic win Saturday in the South Carolina primary. Among the 254 voters polled before the Palmetto State results came in, Gingrich trailed Romney by 11 points; he held a four-point edge, 40-34, among the 347 voters polled afterward, with much of the support seeming to come from Santorum and Paul.
"Gingrich's South Carolina victory clearly gives him a boost in Florida," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The smaller sample sizes in the pre- and post-South Carolina slices of the Quinnipiac Poll means the swing might be less significant than the survey suggests. But even some Romney supporters concede that the win gave Gingrich momentum.
"Gingrich came out of a very conservative state with a lot of raw meat stuff that he threw out there that emboldened people," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, one of Romney's highest-profile endorsers in the Legislature. "But I think Florida is going to take a serious look at it, as they always do, and I think at the end of the day they're going to look for the guy that can best beat the president."
Overall, the poll would suggest that candidate is Romney, who leads Gingrich 49-35. However, among voters polled before the South Carolina results were announced, Romney won the support of 55 percent of Republicans in the survey to 26 percent for Gingrich; among those polled afterward, the former governor's edge was just three points, 45-42.
The GOP field has proven remarkably fluid in 2011-12, with Romney steadily holding in one of the top positions but passed at times by figures like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and pizza magnate Herman Cain -- both of whom have dropped out of the race -- as well as Gingrich, who also led in one poll before Santorum won the Iowa caucuses and Romney cruised through the New Hampshire primary.
"Nobody's a permanent front-runner anymore," said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist not affiliated with any of the campaigns.
As if to prove the point, a CNN/Time/ORC International Poll released later Wednesday showed support for Gingrich slipping.
That poll, with a margin of error of five percentage points, also showed Gingrich and Romney essentially tied. But Sunday's results gave Gingrich a 38-36 lead, with Romney leading 38-29 among those polled Monday and Tuesday, according to CNN's report on the poll. Gingrich's performance in a nationally televised debate Monday was generally viewed as less energetic than some of the outings that helped him in South Carolina.