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.