Politics & Government

Poll: Romney leads, Gingrich surges, Cain sinks

WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential race is being shaken up again, with Mitt Romney retaking the lead, Newt Gingrich surging into second place, and Herman Cain dropping to third place, according to a new McClatchy-Marist nationwide poll released Friday.

The poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents signaled that Romney retains his steady if uncommanding position and that, in the quest by most Republicans for an alternative, they’ve cooled on Cain and are turning to Gingrich. It's the first national survey taken entirely since the allegations of sexual harassment against Cain erupted into a full political firestorm this week.

“Clearly this race has taken yet another dramatic turn. The top tier has gotten more crowded,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York, which conducted the poll.

“Romney is still where he’s been. It’s fair to say this is a battle for the anybody-but-Romney candidate," Miringoff said. "Gingrich has now begun his 15 days of fame. Whether he is able to maintain that, as others have fallen, is the question. He may be the only one standing when this is all said and done.”

The breakdown of the poll:

— Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, 23 percent;

— Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, 19 percent;

— Cain, the former restaurant executive, 17 percent;

— Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 10 percent;

— Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, 8 percent;

— Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, 5 percent;

— Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, 1 percent;

— Former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, 1 percent;

— Undecided, 17 percent.

The survey of 347 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents was conducted Tuesday-Thursday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.

The Cain controversy rose to a new level of intensity starting Monday when a woman, Sharon Bialek, put her name and face behind charges that Cain had made an aggressive sexual advance against her in 1997. The poll suggested support sinking for Cain since then, as a second of four women accusing Cain of inappropriate behavior went public, and Cain gave a highly publicized news conference Tuesday denying the charges.

Asked what they thought about the accusations, 11 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said they thought Cain did something illegal, 34 percent said he did something wrong but not illegal, 29 percent said he did nothing wrong, and 26 percent were unsure.

Asked what they thought motivated the revelation of the accusations, 48 percent said it was to ruin Cain’s reputation, 28 percent said it was based on facts, and 24 percent were unsure.

But 69 percent said he should not quit the campaign, while only 22 percent said he should. Another 9 percent were unsure.

Cain’s support had shot from single digits in national polls as late as Labor Day to an average of 23 percent in recent polls compiled by the website RealClearPolitics. He’d been neck and neck atop the contest with Romney for a month, but the sexual harassment controversy appears to be taking a toll.

“His momentum is stalled,” Miringoff said. “But there is no great urgency on part of Republicans to have him leave the race.”

Among the top tier, Gingrich has the most committed supporters. The poll found that 43 percent of his supporters said they are firmly committed to his candidacy. For Romney, that figure is 30 percent. For Cain, it is 31 percent.

Gingrich’s support stands out even more given that overall, just 30 percent of those supporting a candidate say they are firmly committed. That’s the same as it was in September, and it suggests that voters could swing before the voting starts in Iowa on Jan. 3.

“They’re no more firmly committed to the overall field than they were in September,” Miringoff said. “We should have seen people feeling a greater sense of conviction. It’s not moving.”

Asked to rank what they’re looking for in a candidate, 33 percent said someone who shares their values; 27 percent said experience; 23 percent said someone who agrees with them on issues; and 13 percent said electability.

Of those looking first for values, 22 percent supported Romney and 21 percent supported Cain, the top two choices.

Of those basing their choice primarily on issues, 28 percent went for Romney and 21 percent to Gingrich.

Of those looking first for experience, 25 percent went to Gingrich and 20 percent supported Romney.

For electability, 26 percent went to Romney and 23 percent to Gingrich. ON THE WEB

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