Less than two weeks ago, Mitt Romney had a 22-point lead in Florida, but that’s ancient history in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Following Newt Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina on Saturday, the former House speaker now is on top in Florida by nine.
The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of 750 likely Florida Republican primary voters, taken Sunday evening, finds Gingrich earning 41 percent of the vote, with Romney in second at 32 percent. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum runs third with 11 percent, while Texas Congressman Ron Paul attracts support from 8 percent.
Nine percent remain undecided.
Florida allows early voting, and Romney leads among those voters by 11 points. Gingrich leads by 12 among those who have not yet voted. Just 14 percent have voted.
One-in-three say they still could change their minds before they vote in the Jan. 31 primary. Another 9 percent have no initial preference yet, while 59 percent are already certain of their vote, including 73 percent of Romney supporters and 62 percent of Gingrich voters.
Throughout the GOP race, Romney always has benefited from the perception that he was the strongest general election candidate in the field. However, among Florida voters at the moment, that is no longer the case.
Forty-two percent now believe Gingrich would be the strongest candidate against Obama, while 39 percent say the same of Romney. At the other extreme, 64 percent see Ron Paul as the weakest potential candidate against Obama.
Meanwhile, 77 percent have a favorable opinion of Romney, while 69 percent say the same of Gingrich. Santorum gets positive reviews from 64 percent, but only 33 percent have a favorable opinion of Paul. In Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Paul did better among non-Republicans than Republicans. In the Florida primary, only registered Republicans are allowed to participate.
By a 45 percent to 30 percent margin over Gingrich, Romney is seen as the best candidate to manage the economy. Gingrich has a 54 percent to 23 percent edge over the former Massachusetts governor when it comes to who is best qualified to handle national security matters.
As for which candidate is best in terms of social issues, 30 percent prefer Romney, 30 percent Gingrich and 23 percent Santorum.
When asked which candidate has the best personal character, 41 percent say Romney; 30 percent, Santorum; 11 percent, Gingrich; and 10 percent, Paul.
Gingrich leads by 28 among very conservative voters and by seven among somewhat conservative voters. Among all other voters, Romney leads by 20.
Gingrich picks up 52 percent of the tea party vote. Romney gets 17 percent, and Santorum, 16 percent of these voters.
Regardless of their personal favorite, 52 percent of Florida primary voters still think Romney will be the eventual nominee, but that's down dramatically from 79 percent two weeks ago. Now, 35 percent think Gingrich will be the GOP nominee.
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