Mitt Romney's lead in South Carolina is shrinking, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has emerged as his main challenger in Saturday's winner-take-all primary, according to a new CNN/Time/ORC poll released late on Wednesday.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, leads Gingrich, 33 percent to 23 percent, the poll shows. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., is third, with 16 percent. He is followed by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, with 13 percent; Texas Gov. Rick Perry is last, with 6 percent. Another 6 percent of likely primary voters are undecided.
Less than two weeks ago, Romney had surged to an 18-point lead in the Palmetto State after his apparent victory in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Santorum, who ran neck-and-neck with Romney in Iowa, had temporarily -- and narrowly -- supplanted Gingrich in second place in that survey.
In the current poll, Romney runs best among likely Republican primary voters making more than $50,000 a year (35 percent); voters who are college graduates (38 percent); voters who say they are not born-again or evangelical Christians (47 percent); and voters who say they oppose or feel neutral toward the tea party movement (43 percent).
But in other areas, the poll shows Romney is starting to bleed support. He still leads narrowly among evangelical voters, with 26 percent, 3 points better than Gingrich and 6 points ahead of Santorum. But less than two weeks ago, he had the support of 35 percent of evangelicals.
Romney also led Gingrich among tea party supporters earlier this month, 32 percent to 23 percent; Gingrich now holds the narrow lead with that group, 31 percent to Romney's 26 percent.
Fifty-seven percent of likely primary voters say they will definitely support their candidate, while 35 percent say it is still possible they would change their minds.
The poll was conducted Jan. 13-17, a relatively long time in the field. That the survey comprises five days of interviews in a still-fluid race means that it might not reflect late movement after Monday's Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., even if that movement was significant. An NBC News/Marist poll slated for release on Thursday was conducted only on Monday and Tuesday, and Politico announced that it commissioned a survey by the Tarrance Group, an Alexandria, Va.-based Republican firm, that was to be conducted Tuesday and Wednesday.
If Gingrich fails to stop Romney's momentum in South Carolina, a separate CNN/Time/ORC poll of likely voters in Florida's Jan. 31 primary -- conducted over the same time period and released concurrently -- shows Romney rolling to victory in the Sunshine State. He leads Santorum by a wide margin in the poll, 43 percent to 19 percent, with Gingrich at 18 percent, Paul at 9 percent, and Perry at just 2 percent.
Santorum's relative strength in Florida is due to support from evangelical or born-again Christian voters, who favor him over Romney, 34 percent to 31 percent. Santorum earns the support of just 9 percent of non-evangelical Florida primary voters.
The South Carolina poll surveyed 505 likely primary voters and has a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percent. The Florida poll surveyed 391 likely primary voters -- all of whom said they were registered Republican voters -- and has a margin of error of +/- 5.0 percent.
Both polls tested former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as a candidate through Jan. 15 but dropped him the list of candidates after he announced on Monday he would withdraw from the race. The second choices of those respondents choosing Huntsman have been substituted, according to the poll release.
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