Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich heads into Tuesday night’s debate as the latest favorite – at least for now – in a fluid field of Republican presidential hopefuls.
Gingrich is the fourth candidate to threaten the frontrunner status of Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
Romney, however, remains the only Republican hopeful who appears able to beat President Obama if the general election were held today.
Obama and Romney are tied in a head-to-head matchup, 45% to 44%, in a new survey of registered voters by Quinnipiac University. The two other leading Republican candidates, Gingrich and businessman Herman Cain, trail Obama by 9 and 13 percentage points, respectively.
But in Quinnipiac’s survey of likely Republican voters, Gingrich leads the field of GOP contenders, with 26% support compared to 22% for Romney and 14% for Cain. And he wins a head-to-head matchup with Romney, 49% to 39%.
A new CNN poll has the two tied -- Gingrich wins 24% compared to 20% for Romney -- within the margin of error of 5 percentage points.
Until very recently, Gingrich was polling in the low single-digits. His candidacy sputtered early last summer when about a dozen campaign staffers walked out and the campaign fell into debt.
Gingrich’s surge comes as businessman Herman Cain’s lead has evaporated amid allegations that he sexually harassed female co-workers in the 1990s. In the Quinnipiac poll, 62% of voters said they had heard “a lot” about the allegations; 34% of Republicans and 49% of independents said it made them less likely to support Cain.
Strong debate performances may be a factor in Gingrich’s newfound support, as Republican-leaning voters seem more interested in the candidates’ positions on the issues than in their ability to defeat Obama.
In the Quinnipiac poll, 74% say a candidate’s views should be more important than the candidate’s ability to defeat Obama when Republicans choose the party’s nominee next year.
Gingrich performs particularly well when likely Republican voters are asked to evaluate the candidates’ qualifications and their positions on key issues.
In the CNN poll, 36% said Gingrich is most qualified to be commander-in-chief, compared to 20% for Romney. And 25% said Gingrich is most likely to agree with them on the issues that matter most, compared to 18% for Cain and 16% for Romney.
In the Quinnipiac poll, 46% of likely Republican voters say Gingrich would do the best job handling foreign policy, compared to 16% who say Romney would do the best job. Forty-eight percent say Gingrich has the knowledge and experience necessary to be a good president, compared with 22% who say the same of Romney. And 21% said Gingrich would best handle illegal immigration, compared to 16% for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and 11% for Romney.
Romney performs best when voters are asked to name the candidate who would best handle the economy. In the CNN poll, 25% said Romney is most likely to get the economy moving, compared to 20% for Cain and 19% for Gingrich.
Gingrich registers as one of the least likable candidates, and few voters consider him the most moral.
In the CNN poll, just 9% say Gingrich is the most likable, while 29% say Romney is the most likable. In the Quinnipiac poll, 32% name Romney as the candidate with strong moral character, compared to just 9% for Gingrich.