After apparently sweeping the first two Republican presidential nominating contests, Mitt Romney has opened up a big lead nationally on his rivals, new polls released on Friday show.
A new CNN/ORC International poll released late on Friday shows Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, leading former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 34 percent to 18 percent. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., are tied for third, with 15 percent. Trailing the field are Texas Gov. Rick Perry, at 9 percent, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, at 4 percent.
Romney has shored up his standing among conservatives, the poll shows, leading among that self-identified group with 36 percent. In mid-December, Romney was at 25 percent among conservatives, who make up the majority of Republicans. Romney also leads Gingrich among those who say they support the tea party movement, with 31 percent.
In the latest Gallup tracking poll, Romney is at 34 percent, more than double the support of his closest rival, Gingrich. As in the CNN poll, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul are all bunched closely together but Romney has clearly separated from the pack.
The key to Romney's improved standing overall lies in his perceived electability in the general election. For the first time in the CNN/ORC poll, a majority of Republicans, 55 percent, think he has the best chance of beating President Obama in the general election. Gingrich is second on that question, at 13 percent. In the previous poll, conducted in mid-December, Romney and Gingrich ran neck-and-neck on that measure.
If the GOP field is winnowed after the Jan. 21 South Carolina or Jan. 31 Florida primaries -- Romney is leading the most recent polls in each state -- Romney enjoys a commanding position in head-to-head matchups against the three second-tier candidates: He leads Gingrich, 59 percent to 37 percent; Paul, 67 percent to 31 percent; and Santorum, 60 percent to 37 percent.
The CNN/ORC International poll was conducted Jan. 11-12, surveying 449 Republicans. The margin of error is +/- 4.6 percent.