Still no single clear leader in Republican presidential contest

Posted on 15 Dec 2011 at 5:00pm

Romney often under fire from conservatives for changing positions on issues including LGBT rights

Romney.Mitt.2

Mitt Romney

STEVEN R. HURST  |  Associated Press
editor@dallasvoice.com

WASHINGTON — Republicans are growing significantly less satisfied with the field of candidates to challenge President Barack Obama next year, and they are about evenly split in their support for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, a new Associated Press-GfK poll finds.

Despite Obama’s low approval ratings and deep vulnerability over his handling of the U.S. economy, the poll of all people surveyed, including Democrats and independents, found Romney and the president statistically even. Obama leads Gingrich 51 percent to 42 percent.

With three weeks remaining before the Iowa caucus, the first contest where voters actually declare their choice of a candidate, Romney’s argument that his Washington outsider status sets him apart has not blocked Gingrich’s stunning climb to the top of the field.

A similar AP-GfK poll of Republicans in October found Gingrich well behind the leading candidates, with 7 percent. Romney had 30 percent.

The new poll conducted earlier this month finds Gingrich preferred by 33 percent of Republicans and Romney by 27 percent. However, that finding falls just within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.

Gingrich,Newt

Newt Gingrich

All other candidates are in single digits.

The poll also found a considerable drop in satisfaction with the overall Republican field. In October, 66 percent of Republican adults were satisfied, and 29 percent unsatisfied. Now, 56 percent are satisfied and 40 percent unsatisfied.

Voter preferences in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina do not necessarily match those in national polls. The Iowa caucus is Jan. 3. The New Hampshire primary is one week later.

At a time when polls show plummeting public approval of government, the 68-year-old Gingrich has a long history in the capital as a member of Congress, speaker of the House of Representatives and, since 1998, a lucrative, Washington-based consultant, speaker and author.

Except for four years as Massachusetts governor, Romney, 64, has spent his career in business and management. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1994 and for president in 2008.

Both men have earned millions of dollars over the years.  Romney has built his campaign largely on the argument that his business background makes him better suited for the presidency than anyone else, especially on creating jobs in an economy where unemployment remains at 8.6 percent. But in a recent debate in Iowa, Romney at first struggled to name issues on which he and Gingrich disagree.

After citing Gingrich’s support for a mining colony on the moon and changes to child labor laws, Romney said: “The real difference, I believe, is our backgrounds. I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works.”

Among Republicans who say they prefer a non-Washington candidate, Romney has a modest edge over Gingrich. Gingrich has a larger advantage among those who say they prefer Washington experience in a nominee.

Romney’s better showing in a head-to-head matchup with Obama may give him some ammunition with Republicans whose top priority is ousting the president. Otherwise, Republicans appear to see Romney and Gingrich as similar in many important ways. The two men polled about evenly on the questions of who would be a strong leader, has the right experience, understands ordinary people’s problems and can bring needed change. Romney holds a clear edge on who is most likable. Gingrich leads on the question of who “has firm policy positions.” Romney is often asked about his changed positions on abortion, gay rights, gun control and immigration. Gingrich, however, also has shifted views on key issues.

AP Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 16, 2011.

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