By Jonathan Easley - 12/13/11 12:29 AM EST
Newt Gingrich has sustained his surprising rise in the polls for more than a month, and a slew of new state polling data has cemented the former House Speaker as the GOP’s leading candidate for the nomination.
Of the four early-voting states, polling shows Gingrich leading in three of them — Iowa, South Carolina and Florida — and gaining ground in New Hampshire.
In Iowa, which is first to vote, with its Jan. 3 caucuses, Gingrich leads with 22 percent, according to an American Research Group poll of likely caucus-goers released on Monday.
Mitt Romney and Ron Paul both came in at 17 percent, followed by Rick Perry at 13, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum at 7 percent and Jon Huntsman at 5 percent.
Only two months ago, Gingrich was an afterthought in the Hawkeye State, at 8 percent.
Still, the race for Iowa is tight, and traditional wisdom says a candidate needs a strong ground game in order to turn out voters. Gingrich just opened a small campaign office in Iowa two weeks ago and has considerably softer support in the state than a candidate like Paul.
In addition, some say a surprise candidate like Perry, Bachmann or Santorum could outperform on caucus day if Iowa voters come out in favor of a candidate they view as a strong Christian conservative.
That voting bloc tends to dominate the caucuses, and propelled former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to victory in the 2008 contest.
Gingrich also leads in South Carolina and Florida, the third and fourth states to vote, according to a NBC News-Marist poll released Monday.
In Florida, Gingrich has the largest lead among candidates in any state, battering Romney 39 percent to 26, according to the poll.
Gingrich is highly popular with the older voters who make up a large part of the Republican electorate in Florida. And perhaps surprisingly for a candidate who is so closely tied to Washington, Gingrich is buoyed by Tea Party support in South Carolina.
New Hampshire is the only one of the first four early-voting states where Gingrich doesn’t lead. Romney is widely viewed to have an advantage in the Granite State because of its proximity to Massachusetts. The former Massachusetts governor also owns a home in New Hampshire.
But here too Gingrich is closing the gap, within 10 points of Romney, according to a CNN-Time-ORC poll released last week. Gingrich campaigned in New Hampshire on Monday and debated rival Jon Huntsman in Hollis, N.H., on Monday evening.
Gingrich has also opened up a lead nationally, beating Romney 33 percent to 23, according to Gallup’s Daily Tracking poll. Gingrich has maintained a double-digit lead in the poll since Dec. 1.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the rest of the Republican field views Gingrich as the front-runner as well. The candidates went after the former Speaker hard at Saturday night’s debate in Des Moines, criticizing him for being a career politician and for his multiple marriages.
However, in a Republican nomination process that has seen Perry, Bachmann, Cain and Donald Trump all spend time at the top of the polls, a lot could change.
According to the CNN-Time-ORC poll, 55 percent of voters in Iowa and South Carolina said they were open to changing their minds, while 53 percent of Florida voters and 48 percent of New Hampshire voters said the same.