In yet another shakeup of one of the most erratic Republican presidential primaries in decades, a new Des Moines Register poll shows Newt Gingrich is the top choice of likely Iowa caucus-goers, while Mitt Romney has slipped into a contest for second place with Ron Paul.
Confirming his unexpected and possibly well-timed surge, the former House speaker topped his competitors with 25 percent just one month out from the Jan. 3 caucus, the newspaper reported late Saturday. Rep. Paul of Texas got 18 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Romney got 16 percent, down from 22 about percent a month ago. Eleven percent of likely caucus-goers were undecided, reflecting the fluidity of the nation’s first nominating contest.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota got 8 percent, while former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Gov. Rick Perry both got 6 percent. Businessman Herman Cain – who dropped out of the race just hours before the poll’s results were released – got 8 percent. If Gingrich is able to win over those hardcore Cain supporters, he would have a sizable leg up over Romney.
It’s a dramatic turn of events from the last Register poll about a month ago, which showed Cain and Romney tied for first place and Gingrich at 7 percent. Now Gingrich is the one to beat and all Cain has to offer is his endorsement. Romney’s drop in the polls comes at a sensitive point in the campaign.
After months of being coy about his intentions in Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor has ramped up his efforts in recent weeks with more frequent visits and television ads.
A resounding victory by Gingrich in Iowa could threaten Romney’s longtime dominance in New Hampshire, which votes one week later, and scramble his path to the nomination. Romney has little choice but to step up his attacks on Gingrich, whom he recently started criticizing as a “career politician."
The biggest question for Gingrich is whether he will be able to translate his popularity into caucus turnout, since he is late in building up his field organizations in Iowa and other early-voting states. Until his surge in the polls a few weeks ago, he was operating on a shoestring budget with a skeleton staff.
The Republican primary is expected to focus intensely on Iowa over the next couple weeks, with nationally televised debates scheduled on Dec. 10 in Des Moines and Dec. 15 in Sioux City.
The poll's results were released just hours after Cain, appearing at his newly opened headquarters in Atlanta, said he was suspending his campaign.
The impact of the allegations that he had sexually harassed former employees and had a 13-year extramarital affair undeniably had an impact. Asked which candidate was most likely to have a scandal in the White House, 47 percent picked Cain, up from 25 percent in earlier polls. The survey also found 27 percent think he’s the “least knowledgeable’’ of the candidates.
Selzer & Co. of Des Moines conducted the poll of 401 likely Republican caucus-goers Nov. 27-30. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.