Polls show Romney gaining steam

Mitt Romney's quest to win the Republican presidential nomination looked stronger than ever on Wednesday after the release of a series of polls.

In Iowa, a state Romney had not been depending on but where victory now appears to be within his grasp, polls show the former Massachusetts governor running neck-and-neck with Rep. Ron Paul (Texas). The libertarian lawmaker is seen as a long shot to win the nomination even if he finishes first in the Hawkeye State.

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New national numbers show Romney taking a a 4 percentage-point lead over the field, and in New Hampshire, where he has a strong base of support, Romney maintains a double-digit margin in most polls.

Romney's argument as the most-electable GOP candidate also got a boost Thursday from a Rassmussen Reports poll that found him beating President Obama by 6 points in a hypothetical match-up.

Put together, the latest polls suggest Romney — in a best-case scenario for him — could win the first two GOP contests and close the race for the GOP nomination quickly.

In Iowa, where Romney invested heavily but under-performed in the 2008 presidential contest, Rassmussen found 23 percent support for Romney, a 1 percentage-point lead over Paul but within the survey's margin of error. A surging Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, placed third with 16 percent support, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had been seen as a real rival to Romney, faded to 13 percent.

An Insider Advantage survey found Paul, Romney and Gingrich all tied at 17 percent, with Santorum at 13 percent.

Romney said he is playing for first place in Iowa, abandoning attempts to downplay his efforts in the state. He said he had the momentum and sounded a confident note about his campaign in the Hawkeye State, where his campaign events have had over-capacity crowds the last few days.

"The numbers that are showing up are a lot more than we'd expected. And their level of excitement and enthusiasm and their willingness to caucus on my behalf is encouraging," he said, according to CNN. "So the response I'm getting is really quite heartening."

Santorum is the latest Republican to rise in the polls, and his campaign thinks he’s well-positioned to capitalize on a surge that could be perfectly timed.

Santorum has played the retail politics game in Iowa the way the experts say it should be played. He’s spent more time in the Hawkeye State than any of the other GOP candidates, and he’s visited all 99 of the state’s counties.

New Iowa polling numbers will be released Friday morning from NBC News.

In South Carolina, where the third vote for the GOP nomination will take place, the latest poll numbers show Romney a distant second to Gingrich, but the those surveys — taken before Dec. 20 — predate the former Speaker's steep decline in other polls. 

Cameron Joseph and Jonathan Easley contributed.