CHARLESTON, S.C. — Newt Gingrich has opened up a significant lead over Mitt Romney in the two latest polls as South Carolina’s voters lined up at polling places on Saturday for an open-to-all primary contest that has accurately predicted the GOP nominee since 1980.
The former House speaker led by a startling 40 percent to 26 percent margin in a poll by the American Research Group of 600 likely South Carolina voters taken Thursday and Friday, and by 37 percent to 28 percent over Mr. Romney in a Public Policy Polling survey of 1,540 likely voters taken Wednesday through Friday.
A Gingrich victory over the former Massachusetts governor and Republican front-runner would almost surely make the nomination contest longer than many expected, with many having already anointed Mr. Romney as the inevitable nominee in recent weeks.
“A Gingrich victory in South Carolina would have serious implications for the short-term and long-term future of the GOP,” said pollster John Zogby, who conducts surveys for The Washington Times. “In the short term, it would mean great damage to the credibility of Mitt Romney, perhaps even proving fatal to his candidacy.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, apparent winner of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and for a brief time a top-tier contender even after tying Mr. Gingrich for fourth place with 9.4 percent in New Hampshire a week later, fell back to the middle teens in the latest polls, just ahead of Texas Rep. Ron Paul. The next test after South Carolina will be Florida’s GOP primary on Jan. 31.
Both polls were completed Friday after ABC’s “Nightline” broadcast an interview with Mr. Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne in which she claimed he told her he wanted an “open marriage” so he could continue his affair with another woman.
But Mr. Gingrich actually gained momentum in the wake of the broadcast, and did so in a state with a large number of evangelicals and social conservatives.
It was a stunning turnaround for Mr. Gingrich, whose campaign had twice been broke and on life support since its debut last summer.
The survey reported that 60 percent of likely primary voters said they had watched the debate Thursday night, in which Mr. Gingrich hit back forcefully at the press for focusing on his personal and marital troubles instead of the issues of the campaign.
The PPP survey also showed only 31 percent of those sampled believed the former Mrs. Gingrich’s accusation, while 35 percent pronounced them false.
Of the voters in the sample, only 14 percent took kindly to the press, which Mr. Gingrich has cast as Public Enemy No. 1 from the earliest debates on.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney had held leads with various key voting groups in the South Carolina electorate in recent polls, but have suddenly found the tables turned, with Mr. Gingrich ahead by 20 points among evangelicals, 34 points among self-identified tea party enthusiasts and by 13 points among men.
“Romney saw a 15-point decline in his net favorability in the closing stretch” from plus-24 to plus 9 points, while Mr. Gingrich’s favorable ratings rose from plus-14 to plus-17 points over the final week of polling, Mr. Zogby said.View Entire Story
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Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.
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