Mitt Romney is continuing a precipitous slide in polls across key GOP primary states as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich continues mounting his surge despite a much smaller — and far less costly — campaign operation.
And if news coverage of Saturday's debate can be trusted, Romney probably is looking at a bigger fall to come. Pundits and reporters slammed him Sunday for his seemingly scripted offer of a $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry if Perry could prove what he was saying about Romney's book.
Gingrich’s leap over former front-runner Romney in polls extends far beyond the Midwest, where he is the front-runner in the Jan. 3 caucus state of Iowa. The former House speaker has grabbed commanding leads in two other key states: South Carolina and Florida, according to new NBC News-Marist polls.
Gingrich had become the first candidate to pull so close to Romney in a New Hampshire poll, this one done by CNN, with Romney holding what most polls show is a nine-point lead, 35-26 percentage edge, according to the Nashua Telegraph.
Conservatives and the tea party are credited with pushing Gingrich ahead of the former Massachusetts governor by nearly 20 points in South Carolina. The victors in the Palmetto State’s primary have captured the GOP nominations since 1980.
Gingrich also has snagged a double-digit lead in Florida, where the primary ultimately ended up deciding the party’s choice in 2008.
“You can see why the Romney people are getting a little itchy,” said Lee Miringoff, director of Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion, referring to the Romney campaign’s recent attacks on Gingrich.
In South Carolina, where the presidential primary will take place on Jan. 21, Gingrich has the support of 42 percent of likely primary voters, including those leaning toward a particular candidate. That’s a 35-percentage-point jump since October’s NBC-Marist poll, NBC’s First Read
Romney drops five points to 23 percent, and no other Republican candidate registers in double digits. Texas Rep. Ron Paul gets 9 percent, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are tied at 7 percent.
In a field reduced to three candidates in South Carolina, Gingrich wins 48 percent of likely voters, Romney gets 30 percent, and Paul, 12 percent.
In a simple two-way race, Gingrich’s support increases to 57 percent and Romney’s moves to 33 percent.
“It’s a good lead [for Gingrich] any way you slice it,” Miringoff says.
In Florida, where the primary will take place on Jan. 31, Gingrich is at 44 percent among likely voters — a 38-point increase from October. Following him are Romney at 29 percent (a four-point decline); Paul, 8 percent; and Perry, 4 percent.
When the Florida tally is pared to three candidates, Gingrich captures 51 percent, Romney 31 percent and Paul 10 percent. And in a simple head-to-head contest, it’s Gingrich at 54 percent, and Romney, 36 percent.
The one potential gaffe of the Saturday evening debate came when Romney offered Perry a $10,000 wager on who was right about part of Romney's record.
The demand to bet $10,000, which Perry did not accept, represented about one-fifth of Iowa's median annual income of $48,000 and could suggest a chasm between those voters and Romney, who is worth an estimated $190 million to $250 million.
Miringoff likened it to a moment in a 1992 debate when then-President George H.W. Bush was caught on camera looking at his watch, McClatchy Newspapers reported.
Although Bush later said he was checking to make sure a rival was staying within the time limit, he was widely portrayed as impatient with having to debate. It helped define him, and hurt his candidacy for re-election. So, too, Romney could find the $10,000 bet reinforcing an image of him as a wealthy man without much in common with voters.
Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist not aligned with any campaign this year, called the bet offer an "elitist" comment that will cost Romney. "Gov. Romney lost a lot more than 10,000 bucks last night," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
Gingrich, meanwhile, told CNN he was going to run a clean campaign with no such gimmicks.
"I want you to know that my campaign will be relentlessly positive. Our advertising will be positive," Gingrich said, speaking to supporters Saturday at the opening of a campaign office in Urbandale, Iowa.
"I will also tell you none of my surrogates are going to be encouraged to go out and attack anyone," he said, after former New Hampshire governor and Romney supporter John Sununu went personal and called the former House Speaker self-serving and self-aggrandizing.
"There's no problem with people who want to compare records. Comparisons are fair," Gingrich said. "But there's a big difference, and everybody intuitively knows it, between negative attack ads that are deliberately destructive and legitimate comparison ads, and I have no complaint with people who want to compare."
The front-runner said he will not engage in tearing down candidates, he said, according to CNN.
"If anybody does go out and create a super PAC using my name, if they run any negative ads, we will attack them and we will encourage people to give them no money," he said.
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