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Inside Romney’s Rise to Top of GOP Heap

The latest survey of Iowa Republican caucus goers confirms the rapid decline in Newt Gingrich’s fortunes. A Rasmussen poll conducted Monday and published today shows Mitt Romney vaulting into the lead with 25 percent, Ron Paul in second with 20 percent, and Newt Gingrich lagging behind in third with 17 percent.

There are a few notable elements about this poll. First is the continuation of Gingrich’s slide which shows him with only about half as much support as he had just about a month ago in Iowa. Second are the steady gains that both Romney and Paul have made with each advancing 2 points in the last week. Third is the fact that for the first time, Rick Santorum is finally gaining some traction in Iowa and most specifically passing Michele Bachmann. But last and perhaps most significant is the fact that Romney is, according to Rasmussen, leading among those voters who “consider themselves Republicans,” while Paul is ahead among non-Republicans likely to participate in the caucus. That bodes well for the former Massachusetts governor and illustrates again how implausible Paul’s hopes for the nomination really are.

Examining these trends in greater detail, it’s clear that Gingrich’s decline is no longer in doubt. Since his campaign was always something of a house of cards, the final two weeks before the caucus may see his support decline even further. That will mean not only an ignominious end for what seemed only a month ago to be a campaign headed to victory in Iowa but the harbinger of a swift end to his hopes elsewhere.

Some may interpret Romney’s progress as more evidence of his inability to gain more than a quarter of the vote, but his slow creep toward the top illustrates that he has reversed the negative momentum that seemed to stall his campaign a few weeks ago. Paul’s gains will be greeted with dismay by mainstream Republicans who are unhappy about this extremist’s prominence in the party, but if he is taking away votes from conservatives who want anyone but Romney, that will merely strengthen the former Massachusetts governor in the long run because any outcome in Iowa other than a Gingrich win makes his nomination more likely.

As for Santorum, it appears his months of beating the bushes in Iowa and going to every county in the state to appeal to social conservatives is finally paying off. His support has doubled in the last month and, though it still leaves him with only 10 percent, it is clear that five percent probably came from Gingrich. Even more, it finally pushes him ahead of Bachmann, who is largely competing for the same voters as the former Pennsylvania senator. Bachmann’s decline from nine percent a week ago to six today is significant. Combined with the endorsement from a major evangelical figure in the state (which did not figure into responses in this poll) this gives Santorum hope that his momentum will grow in the campaign’s final days. I have already written that I thought one of those two will finish in the top three in Iowa and I’m standing by that prediction, though it appears more likely now the one to do so will be Santorum rather than Bachmann (as I thought a couple of days ago).

Lastly, the figures that show Romney winning among Republican voters should pour cold water on the expectation that the party’s grass roots won’t support him. This may be more a matter of a belief in his greater electability over any of the other candidates than affection for Romney, but the effect is the same. Once Iowa and New Hampshire have finished voting, most of the next states up for competition won’t be open enrollment, which means the GOP core will decide this nomination.

This is also a reminder that support for Paul is not coming so much from Tea Party or social conservative activists but from more marginal and disaffected elements. One would hope that as more voters learn about the extremist nature of his views, and of his connection to hate literature, that his share of the vote would decline. But no matter what happens in Iowa, Paul still has no chance of winning over most Republicans. It also should illustrate my belief that the possibility of him running as a third party candidate is more of a threat to the Democrats than to the Republicans.


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