The Washington Times - December 6, 2011, 08:25AM

A new poll out Tuesday shows that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is extending his lead in the GOP presidential race in Iowa, thanks in large part to his political experience and the conservative craving for an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, Mr. Gingrich garnered the support of 33 percent of likely caucuses-goers, while Mr. Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul pulled in 18 percent apiece. Texas Gov. Rick Perry won 11 percent; Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, 8 percent; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, 7 percent; and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, bringing up the rear with 2 percent.

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“Newt Gingrich has leapt to a sizable lead in preferences for the Iowa Republican caucuses, drawing on a rally from conservatives, positive views of his political experience and a sense he best represents ‘core Republican values’ to push Mitt Romney into a trailing tie with Ron Paul,” the poll analysis reads.

The survey, though, also shows the electorate is far from settled, with more than half of likely caucus-goers saying they might pick a different candidate before the Jan. 3 caucuses, which are the first stop in the nomination race.

“Indeed about one in four, 27 percent, says there’s a ‘good chance’ they’ll switch their first preference — more than enough to shift the standings if the bulk of them were to move in the same direction,” the poll found.

Whatever the case, the poll is sure to score Mr. Gingrich some positive headlines heading into Saturday’s debate in Iowa, where he started airing his first campaign ad on Monday.

For Mr. Romney, it shows that he has an uphill battle ahead of him if he hopes to pull off what would amount to a upset victory in Iowa, where he’s taken a hands-off approach during most of the campaign season. Mr. Romney, who placed second in Iowa in the 2008 campaign, only recently cranked up his campaign efforts there by releasing his first campaign ad last week and deploying New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie there for a Romney rally on Wednesday.

The survey, meanwhile, drove home the point that Mr. Paul is a force to be reckoned with in the Hawkeye State, where he has more die-hard supporters than any other candidate in the field.

The poll shared some of the story lines found in the Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend. It also showed Mr. Gingrich expanding his lead, while 11 percent of likely caucus-goers were uncommitted to a first choice and 60 percent were willing to change to another candidate.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll suggested that there’s a greater chance that Romney backers will jump ship than those who are lining up behind Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Paul, whose supporters basically aren’t budging from their choice.

“Romney’s also vulnerable in another area: He faces a significant loyalty gap, in which his supporters are disproportionately likely to say they may change their minds. Paul’s backers, by contrast, are highly loyal; Gingrich’s fall between the two,” the poll found.

Mr. Romney’s support among hard-line conservatives is just 11 percent, which could pose a problem for him given the major role they play in the state’s caucuses. His strongest support comes from moderates, though the poll points out that “they’re far too few in number to make up for his conservative shortfall.”