Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) holds a wide lead over his rivals in New Hampshire, according to a new poll, due in part to a primary electorate whose main concern is electability.
Forty-two percent of likely Republican primary voters in a new NBC News/Marist poll say they back Romney for president, compared with 22 percent for Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and 13 percent for former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.).
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has made New Hampshire the focus of his bid for the GOP nomination, was the choice of nine percent of likely GOP primary voters, as was former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has taken a dive in the polls in recent weeks.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry took only one percent in the poll, and five percent of respondents said they were undecided.
The survey of 711 likely primary voters had a 3.7 percentage point margin of error.
Romney has increased his support from 39 percent in early December, while Santorum’s has risen more than six-fold, from two percent last month. Paul’s backing, too, has grown from 16 percent. Gingrich’s support, meanwhile, has collapsed from 24 percent.
Aside from his 42-percent showing, the number that likely has Romney’s camp in high spirits is the 61 percent of likely voters who said that it’s more important to have a nominee who can beat President Obama than a nominee who “is a true conservative.”
Only 12 percent of respondents cited Romney as the candidate who represents the true conservative in the race, while 28 percent said the same of Santorum and 26 percent said so of Paul.
By contrast, nearly two-thirds of likely voters -- 65 percent – cited Romney as the candidate who has the best chance of defeating Obama in November. Paul is the only other candidate who polls in the double digits on this question, at 10 percent.
New Hampshire voters, like their first-in-the-nation counterparts in Iowa, typically make up their minds in the days leading up to their nominating contest, although a significant number of respondents in the NBC-Marist poll already are solidly behind their GOP hopeful: 60 percent of likely primary voters strongly support their chosen candidate, while 40 percent said they either somewhat support their choice or might vote differently.
Only 13 percent of likely voters said Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) endorsement of Romney mattered to them “a great deal” or “a good amount;” 15 percent said the announcement mattered “some,” and 72 percent said that it mattered “not at all” or “not very much.”
Looking forward to the general election, 40 percent of those polled by NBC/Marist approve of the job that President Obama is doing, while 49 percent disapprove – a bad omen for the president in the Granite State.
The poll comes four days ahead of the New Hampshire primary and on the eve of an ABC News/WMUR debate in Manchester.