By Walter C. Jones
ATLANTA — The seesaw race for Republican presidential nominee has tipped again, giving Newt Gingrich the lead in South Carolina.
In a poll conducted Wednesday night by InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research for The Augusta Chronicle, Gingrich reversed the momentum of Mitt Romney, who had an expanding lead in the same poll Sunday night.
Gingrich’s 32 percent to Romney’s 29 percent puts the two inside the poll’s 3.8 percent margin of error, but the 11-point lead Romney held in the Sunday evening survey has evaporated. Romney’s strength had been building after wins in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
Wednesday’s poll included 718 registered voters who said they were voting in Saturday’s GOP primary.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul is in third place with 15 percent, followed by Rick Santorum’s 11 percent and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 3 percent. Seven percent remain undecided and are unlikely to vote, while 3 percent favor some other candidate not listed as a choice.
Gingrich, who represented neighboring Georgia in Congress for two decades and rose to become House speaker, took support from Santorum and Perry to pass Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, according to pollster Matt Towery, the InsiderAdvantage CEO. Gingrich captured the lead, Towery said, through his performance in Monday night’s televised debate in Myrtle Beach that included a standing ovation from the live audience in response to his defense of conservatism.
The candidates debate again tonight, which will give Gingrich a chance to cement his lead and Romney, a chance to redeem himself.
The demographic breakdown of Wednesday’s poll results shows Gingrich not only doing well with male voters and those who declare themselves to be Republicans, groups that have traditionally backed him, but also with female voters.
“His biggest weakness are voters who are 30-44, who are overwhelmingly for Romney,” Towery said. “They don’t know anything about Gingrich. They don’t know what he’s achieved, so they’re voting against him.”
A CNN poll released earlier Wednesday was conducted between Friday and Tuesday. It also showed Romney’s lead disappearing despite the fact that most respondents had not yet seen Monday’s debate. In that survey, Romney and Santorum were losing ground while Gingrich was gaining.
Leaders of national conservative groups hoping to defeat Romney for being too moderate for their taste agreed over the weekend to back Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania. Apparently South Carolina conservatives have decided to coalesce behind Gingrich instead.