Rasmussen: Romney retakes lead over Gingrich, 39% to 31%; Santorum at 12%, Paul 9%

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Mitt Romney has jumped back ahead in the fevered Florida Republican Primary race with his support back to where it was before Newt Gingrich’s big win Saturday in South Carolina.

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Florida Republican Primary Voters, taken Wednesday night, shows Romney with 39% support to Gingrich’s 31%. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum earns 12%, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul runs last with nine percent (9%). Four percent (4%) prefer some other candidate, and seven percent (7%) are undecided.

Four days ago, just after the South Carolina Primary, Gingrich led Romney 41% to 32%.  Less than two weeks earlier, coming off Romney’s decisive win in the New Hampshire Primary, it was Romney 41%, Gingrich 19% in Florida.  Santorum’s and Paul’s support has remained largely the same throughout.

The latest results from Florida are a mirror image of the dynamic found a week ago in South Carolina. In the Palmetto State, the former House speaker was trailing by 14 points on Monday, but following a strong debate performance he had a two-point lead by Wednesday. That 16-point turnaround seemed stunning at the time. Now, in Florida, it’s Romney’s turn. He trailed by nine points in the Sunshine State on Sunday  but enjoyed a 17-point comeback by Wednesday.

As GOP voters search for the candidate best equipped to defeat President Obama, perceptions of Romney’s electability have risen since earlier in the week. Four days ago, 42% of Florida primary voters said Gingrich would be the strongest candidate against Obama, while 39% felt that way about the former Massachusetts governor. Now 49% think Romney would be the strongest challenger versus 34% who believe that of Gingrich. Most still agree that Paul would be the weakest GOP nominee.

Seventy-eight percent (78%) think Romney is at least somewhat likely to beat Obama, with 43% who feel it’s Very Likely. Sixty-six percent (66%) believe Gingrich is likely to beat the incumbent, including 35% who say it’s Very Likely. Just 39% and 18% of Florida Republicans respectively say Santorum or Paul are likely to win the White House this November.

Most (55%) in Florida still expect Romney to eventually win the GOP presidential nomination, but 31% think Gingrich will be the nominee. That represents a slight shift in Romney’s favor from four days ago.

Highlighting the fluid nature of the race in Florida is the finding that 24% of likely primary voters say they still could change their minds before the final vote on Tuesday. That’s down from 32% on Sunday. Eight percent (8%) still haven’t made their initial choice. The 69% who are certain how they will vote includes 78% of Gingrich supporters, 74% of Romney voters, 67% of Paul’s backers and 61% of Santorum’s.

Seventy-three percent (73%) of Likely Florida Primary Voters have a favorable opinion of Romney. Gingrich is viewed favorably by 63%, Santorum by 59% and Paul by 35%.

Fifty-three percent (53%) regard economic issues as most important in the election, with fiscal issues such as taxes and government spending as a distant second with 20% rating them most important. After that in terms of the number of voters who rate them as their top concern are domestic issues (10%), national security issues (7%) and cultural issues (5%). In earlier surveys, voters have rated Romney best on the economy, Gingrich best on national security and Santorum best on social issues.

Tea Party voters and Evangelical Christians were key to Gingrich’s win in South Carolina. Gingrich continues to hold a sizable 40% to 25% lead over Romney among Tea Party Republicans in Florida. Primary voters who are not members of the grassroots movement prefer Romney 48% to 29%. Evangelical Christians are now evenly divided over the top two candidates. Romney leads among other Protestants and Catholics. Gingrich is ahead among those of other faiths.

Nationally, Gingrich leads the presidential pack among likely GOP primary voters with 35%.  After that, it’s Romney 28%, Santorum 16% and Paul 10%.

The charges have been flying fast and furious about Gingrich’s marital and professional behavior and Romney’s business practices and taxes, but 68% of Likely Republican Primary Voters nationwide believe Gingrich is at least as ethical as most politicians.  Eighty-two percent (82%) regard Romney to be at least as ethical as most of his peers. That includes 30% say Romney is more ethical than most. Only 13% say the same of Gingrich. Just nine percent now think Gingrich has the best personal character of the remaining major GOP hopefuls, making him fourth out of four.

While many think the Republican contest is down to a two-man race, one-third (33%) of GOP voters nationally think it would be good for the party if a new candidate jumped in.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.