DES MOINES — Propelled by his debate performances and the demise of Herman Cain’s candidacy, former House speaker Newt Gingrich sits atop the Republican presidential field in Iowa with a clear lead over his closest competitors, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Gingrich, according to the survey, has advantages that extend well beyond the horse race that put him in an enviable position in the final weeks before the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses, which serve as the formal start of the long nominating season. On electability, empathy and handling the economy, he does as well as or better than former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has long been described as the nominal front-runner for the nomination, or Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.).
Gingrich’s emergence is the latest dramatic shift in the GOP contest that have made front-runners out of a series of contenders only to have them fall quickly back into the pack.
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Gingrich’s campaign was considered all but dead only a few months ago. The question now is whether he can capitalize on his current strengths to make himself a lasting contender.
His support in national polls has been steadily increasing, and a victory in Iowa would probably give him a boost in the next two states to hold elections: New Hampshire, where he has been closing in on Romney, and South Carolina. A separate poll of South Carolina voters, by Winthrop University, shows Gingrich ahead of Romney in that bellwether state 38 percent to 22 percent.
But Romney’s advisers think they have the money and infrastructure to wage a protracted campaign even if he loses two of the first three states. No Republican has done that in the modern era, but the rules are different this year because some states will distribute delegates proportionally.
With 33 percent support among likely caucus-goers in the new poll, Gingrich runs well ahead of his two main rivals, Romney and Paul, a libertarian whose passionate following and anti-government rhetoric have made him a durable force in the race. Both are at 18 percent.
But Iowa Republicans are far from decided. More than six in 10 potential caucus-goers say they could change their minds, and even among the likeliest attendees, fewer than half say they have definitely chosen a candidate.
Of the top three, Paul’s supporters are the most solid, followed by Gingrich’s and Romney’s.
Beyond the leaders, only Texas Gov. Rick Perry scores in the double digits, with 11 percent. Two candidates who have devoted as much or more time as any to the state — Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) — are in the single digits, at 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Running last among the major candidates is former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., with 2 percent. Huntsman has staked his candidacy on a strong finish in New Hampshire.
The survey was conducted Wednesday through Sunday, with all interviews following the latest allegations of sexual impropriety against businessman Cain and the candidate’s declaration that he was “reassessing” his candidacy.
Cain, a onetime leader in Iowa polls, announced Saturday that he was suspending his campaign. About 4 percent of likely caucus-goers surveyed put Cain as their top choice, far below his tally in state polls just weeks before. (In the reported data here, these respondents were allocated to their second-most-preferred candidate.)
Whether Gingrich has more staying power than the others who rose and then fell is the biggest question hanging over the Republican race today. The former speaker has little organizational strength in Iowa and began airing television commercials Monday. Just 13 percent of potential caucus attendees say they have heard from Gingrich’s campaign, half the proportion who say they have heard from Bachmann’s.
At the same time, Gingrich’s surge to the lead stems from far more than Cain’s situation. Gingrich — who has received considerable attention for his performances in candidate debates, picks up 38 percent of the vote among likely attendees who have watched a debate and 22 percent among those who haven’t.
As elsewhere in the country, the economy and jobs are the dominant issues in Iowa, with 38 percent singling them out as their top voting concerns. Romney’s private-sector background works for him in Iowa: Sixty-one percent of likely caucus-goers say his business experience is a reason to support him.
But Romney trails even among those who prioritize the economy and finishes far below Gingrich — whose political experience gets extremely positive reviews — when it comes to having the best pedigree for the White House.