As the GOP presidential nomination race settles into South Carolina, Mitt Romney isn’t enjoying the double-digit lead he held in New Hampshire, according to a survey conducted Wednesday night.
The former Massachusetts governor’s lead is so small in the Palmetto State that he’s essentially tied with Newt Gingrich, according to a poll conducted for The Augusta Chronicle by InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research.
Romney’s 23 percent and Gingrich’s 21 percent fall within the 3.6 percent margin of error. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who came in second in the Iowa caucuses is in third place in South Carolina with 14 percent, while Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the runner-up in New Hampshire, is effectively tied with him at 13 percent.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has 7 percent, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has 5 percent, while 17 percent are undecided or favor a candidate not offered as a choice in the survey.
The telephone survey questioned 726 registered voters who said they were likely to vote in the South Carolina GOP primary. Voters don’t have to be Republicans to participate in the Jan. 21 balloting, but independents generally make up a small share of the total, according to pollster Matt Towery, the president of InsiderAdvantage.
Romney, Gingrich and Paul all do equally well with the independents in the survey. Paul, though, is getting little traction from longtime Republican voters.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, does better with female voters, while men prefer former House Speaker Gingrich.
“This is not good news for Mitt Romney,” said Towery, who chaired several of Gingrich’s congressional campaigns before becoming a nonpartisan pollster. “There is no other way to put it. This means it is a dead-even race. South Carolinians couldn’t care less about New Hampshire or Iowa.”
Romney, on his second try for the nomination, won the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary this month, the first nonincumbent Republican to do so. However, those back-to-back wins don’t seem to be giving him overwhelming momentum this far south.
Gingrich represented the western part of neighboring Georgia for 20 years in Congress and apparently knows how to appeal to Southern voters, who tend to be more concerned about social issues than those in New Hampshire.
The South Carolina primary is regarded as the first meaningful contest because of what the results will signal for the party’s chances of defeating President Obama in November. Of course, it’s also stoking anticipation because of the legendary ruthlessness of the state’s political operatives.
Republicans in South Carolina like to remind people that their primary picks presidents, or at least presidential nominees. Since 1980, when Ronald Reagan won 55 percent of the vote, no candidate has captured the Republican nomination for president without notching a win in South Carolina’s GOP primary. In the 2008 election, eventual nominee John McCain won the South Carolina primary with more than 30 percent of the vote, trailed by Iowa winner Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. Romney came in fourth in South Carolina with about 15 percent.
This time, the results will be dramatically different, as the state’s active evangelical voting bloc is expected to set aside prejudice in favor of pragmatism. Support among evangelicals’ ranks may signal that they accept Romney, a Mormon, in part for being the candidate largely believed to offer the toughest challenge to Obama.
Since Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, where Romney steamrolled his rivals with nearly 40 percent of the vote, the candidates have swarmed the Palmetto State. They are stumping at barbecue joints, pharmacies, universities and local government buildings. On Monday, the candidates are scheduled to participate in a debate in Myrtle Beach, hosted by the South Carolina Republican Party, Fox News Channel, The Wall Street Journal and Twitter.
Some see the Palmetto State as the last chance to justify staying in the race.