Less than two weeks ago, Mitt Romney had a 22-point lead in Florida, but that’s ancient history in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Following his big win in South Carolina on Saturday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich now is on top in Florida by nine.
The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Florida Republican Primary Voters, taken Sunday evening, finds Gingrich earning 41% of the vote with Romney in second at 32%. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum runs third with 11%, while Texas Congressman Ron Paul attracts support from eight percent (8%). Nine percent (9%) remain undecided.
Florida allows early voting, and Romney leads among those voters by 11 points. Gingrich leads by 12 among those who have not yet voted. Fourteen percent (14%) have already cast their vote.
One-in-three (32%) say they still could change their minds before they vote in the January 31 primary. Another nine percent (9%) have no initial preference yet. Fifty-nine percent (59%) are already certain of their vote, including 73% of Romney supporters and 62% of Gingrich voters.
Throughout the GOP race, Romney has always benefited from the perception that he was the strongest general election candidate in the field. However, among Florida voters at the moment, that is no longer the case. Forty-two percent (42%) now believe Gingrich would be the strongest candidate against Obama, while 39% say the same of Romney. At the other extreme, 64% see Ron Paul as the weakest potential candidate against Obama.
Seventy-seven percent (77%) have a favorable opinion of Romney, while 69% say the same of Gingrich. Sixty-four percent (64%) give Santorum positive reviews, but only 33% have a favorable opinion of Paul. In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Paul did better among non-Republicans than Republicans. In the Florida primary, only registered Republicans are allowed to participate.
By a 45% to 30% margin over Gingrich, Romney is seen as the best candidate to manage the economy. Gingrich has a 54% to 23% edge over the former Massachusetts governor when it comes to who is best qualified to handle national security matters.
As for which candidate is best in terms of social issues, 30% prefer Romney, 30% Gingrich and 23% Santorum.
When asked which candidate has the best personal character, 41% say Romney, 30% Santorum, 11% Gingrich and 10% Paul.
Gingrich leads by 28 among Very Conservative voters and by seven among Somewhat Conservative voters. Among all other voters, Romney leads by 20.
Gingrich picks up 52% of the Tea Party vote. Romney gets 17% and Santorum 16% of these voters.
Regardless of their personal favorite, most Florida primary voters (52%) still think Romney will be the eventual nominee, but that’s down dramatically from 79% two weeks ago. Thirty-five percent (35%) now think Gingrich will be the GOP nominee.