Mitt Romney has overtaken Rick Santorum in his home state of Pennsylvania, putting him in position to score a decisive primary victory that could end the GOP race.
Romney leads in Pennsylvania with 42 percent support, followed by Santorum at 37 percent, Ron Paul at 9 percent and Newt Gingrich at 6 percent, according to a survey from Public Policy Polling released on Thursday.
In the same poll taken one month ago, Santorum led Romney 43 percent to 25 percent.
Santorum has labeled the Pennsylvania primary a must-win, and earlier this week guaranteed a victory there.
"We have to win here, and we plan on winning here," Santorum said Wednesday in Pittsburgh. "As I said last night, the people of Pennsylvania know me. All of the negative attacks are, I think, going to fall on a lot of deaf ears here. We've got a strong base of support here. And we're going to work very, very hard."
Sources close to Santorum told The Hill the former senator might drop out of the Republican race if it appears he’s going to lose his home state on April 24.
“He’s a realist; he doesn’t have his head in the clouds,” said Sen. Jake Corman (R), a longtime friend of Santorum and his family. “As long as he sees a pathway to the nomination he’s going to stay in it, but he won’t stay in it to prove a point. If he gets to the point where he doesn’t think he’ll be the nominee, he’ll get out.”
The new poll of Pennsylvania shows Romney making inroads with demographic groups that have been a stronghold for Santorum throughout the primary season — evangelicals, Tea Party supporters and those voters that describe themselves as “very conservative.”
Santorum once held seemingly insurmountable leads with those groups in Pennsylvania, and turnout from these voters has propelled him to some surprising victories in the West, Deep South and plains states.
And while Santorum still leads among all three groups in Pennsylvania, Romney is now within striking distance. Last month Santorum led by 37 percent among evangelicals; his lead has now been cut to 10 percent. Santorum’s 32 percent advantage among Tea Party supporters has been diminished to 6, and what was once a 51 percent lead among the “very conservative” is now down to 11.
In addition, the narrative the Romney campaign has pushed throughout the primary season — that the former Massachusetts governor is the party’s inevitable nominee — seems to have taken hold, as a majority, 54 percent, now say Santorum doesn’t have a realistic shot at the nomination.
Romney seemed to pivot toward a general election match-up against President Obama on Thursday, accusing him of concealing his real agenda for a second term. He did not mention Santorum in the speech, or any of his other primary opponents.
The attack came the day after President Obama criticized Romney by name for the first time, mocking his embrace of the House Republican budget from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Romney holds a more than 2-to-1 lead in delegates, and there is little chance Santorum could win the nomination outside of a contested convention, but if he can make it to May with his campaign intact, the schedule seems to turn in his favor, with Deep South contests in Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina and West Virginia.