New poll finds Romney and Paul in neck and neck battle for Iowa victory

Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are battling for the top spot in Iowa but the second tier of candidates is closing in, according to a NBC News-Marist poll released on Friday.

Romney leads the poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers at 23 percent, followed by Paul at 21 percent.

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The second tier of candidates, however, led by Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, are suddenly within striking distance of the front-runners.

Santorum came in third at 15 percent, followed by Perry at 14 percent.

Newt Gingrich has fallen to fifth place at 13 percent. The former House Speaker led the same poll earlier this month at 28 percent, but has been battered by his rivals over his divorces and ties to Freddie Mac.

Michele Bachmann is at 6 percent.

This is the second poll this week to show momentum building within the Santorum campaign.

Santorum is up nine points from the previous NBC-Marist poll, when he finished in last place among the candidates actively campaigning in Iowa.

But the poll also shows a surge for Perry, who is up four points since the last poll and only trails Santorum by 1 percent. The Texas governor is also one of the most likely second choices of voters in the poll, trailing only Romney at 21 percent, which is an eight-point gain over the previous poll.

Poll watchers in the state have been keeping a close eye on Santorum, Perry and Bachmann because evangelical voters in the state have yet to coalesce around a candidate, and many believe the bloc could turn out to provide a surprise showing for one of them.

 Those voters turned out in the 2008 race for the White House and propelled former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to victory.

However, the poll shows that Tea Party supporters are divided between Santorum and Perry, which could significantly limit either candidate's upside on caucus day.

Santorum leads among Tea Party supporters at 20 percent, followed by Romney and Paul at 17 percent, Gingrich at 16 percent, Perry at 15 percent and Bachmann at 10 percent.

This is a devastating poll for the Bachmann campaign, which this week lost its Iowa chairman to the Paul campaign.