Jennifer Jacbos, Desmoines Register
With the dizzying fall of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich has stepped into the breach and now stands alone as the most popular GOP presidential candidate in The Des Moines Registerâ€™s new Iowa Poll.
Gingrich, with support of 25 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers, is seven points ahead of the rising Ron Paul, whoâ€™s at 18 percent. Mitt Romney drops to third, at 16percent, denting his previously armor-plated Iowa polling average. Romneyâ€™s support stood at 22 percent last month.
Cain, who suspended his campaign Saturday, had plunged from 23 percent to 8 percent in just over a month, tied with Michele Bachmann.
In a race thatâ€™s still far from settled, previous candidate surges have had a half life. But Gingrichâ€™s comes at a critical time â€” with just a month until the first votes are cast in the nationâ€™s GOP nominating contest. The key question is whether his support represents momentum or a peak.
Politics watchers say it could be difficult for Gingrich to withstand the rigors of front-runner status, especially when his campaign has shown a lack of discipline so far, plagued by early debt, staff turnover and a paper-thin organization.
Gingrich has been â€œa one-man band just standing onstage and pontificating,â€ Republican strategist Mike Murphy said. â€œOn caucus night, can you convoy and get people there?â€
One striking finding: The results show Gingrichâ€™s ascendancy has the potential to grow, pollster J. Ann Selzer said.
More respondents choose Gingrich as their second choice than any other candidate. Together, 43 percent of likely caucusgoers pick him as first or second.
With Cainâ€™s departure from the race, Gingrich will likely benefit. More Cain supporters name Gingrich as their second choice than any other candidate.
Rounding out the field: The two Ricks, Perry and Santorum, are locked in a tie at 6 percent. At the bottom is Jon Huntsman at 2 percent.
Selzer & Co. of Des Moines conducted the poll of 401 likely Republican caucusgoers Nov. 27-30. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
The race remains elastic. Eleven percent of likely caucusgoers are uncommitted to a first choice, and 60percent are still willing to change their mind. A single dayâ€™s news can seesaw opinions.
Another interesting finding: Paul, often dismissed by the political establishment, has climbed 6 points since the Registerâ€™s October poll.
â€œThe big surprise potential now is with Ron Paul,â€ said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
But Paul could be closing in on his ceiling, the poll indicates. Just 7 percent choose him as their second choice.
â€œThis is where Paul is weak, in that he has little breadth from which to draw new support,â€ Selzer said.
Although Romney is no longer king in the Iowa Poll â€” he was No. 1 in June and just a point off the lead in October â€” the results contain some positive signs for his Iowa campaign.
Pluralities of likely caucusgoers see Romney as the most electable candidate in the general election, and the most presidential. Gingrich supporters name Romney as their second choice more than any other candidate. And Romney takes the likability crown that caucusgoers bestowed on Cain a month ago.
Leading on electability offers perhaps the brightest ray of hope for Romney supporters. Gingrichâ€™s surge might prove another primal but short-lived scream of frustration at the direction the country is headed.
As the Jan. 3 caucuses near, their theory goes, Republicans will eventually gravitate to the candidate they think can best beat Democratic President Barack Obama.
Thirty-five percent of poll respondents have seen at least one candidate in person.
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