The poll highlights the significance of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, which could be the last chance for Romney’s main opponents to halt his steady march toward the nomination. A loss by the former Massachusetts governor, however, could change the dynamic of the contest by helping to catapult one of his rivals into a head-to-head matchup in Florida’s primary on Jan. 31.
Romney wins the support of 35 percent of all Republicans and GOP-leaners nationwide, with former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) neck and neck with about half the support Romney enjoys. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who surged to a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, checks in at 13 percent, his highest level of the campaign. Texas Gov. Rick Perry runs fifth, at 9 percent, rounding out a field that shrank Monday with the decision by former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. to quit the race and endorse Romney.
Romney has edged up since a Post-ABC poll in mid-December before the campaign’s first votes were cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, boosted by a sharp increase in his perceived electability and a steep falloff in national support for Gingrich.
With his rivals closely bunched and well behind him, Romney has obvious advantages, reinforcing an aura of inevitability that surrounds his candidacy. Nearly six in 10 Republicans see him as the party’s best shot at defeating Obama.
Just a month ago, Romney held a 10-point advantage over Gingrich as the most electable candidate in the field. That lead has swelled to a whopping margin of 57 percent to 10 percent. In the intervening weeks, millions of dollars in negative ads hit the former speaker in Iowa as his support plummeted there and nationally. Gingrich, who declared late last year that he was likely to be the nominee, finished fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Overwhelmingly, Republicans expect Romney to be the party’s nominee. Even about two-thirds of those who do not support him for the nomination see him as the one most likely to be atop the party’s presidential ticket.
Romney also has consolidated support on issue No. 1: the economy. For the first time in the campaign, he has a double-digit lead over his rivals when it comes to dealing with economic issues; he beats everyone on this measure by 2 to 1. And he is up 13 points when it comes to handling the federal budget deficit. Exit polls in New Hampshire and Iowa showed overwhelming percentages of voters focused on these two issues.
Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.