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New S.C. primary poll: Romney leads, but by tighter margin

In the final days leading up to the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich attacked Mitt Romney's tax rate revelation. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

 

Mitt Romney leads among likely voters in Saturday's South Carolina GOP primary, though Newt Gingrich trails in second by a diminishing margin, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

Thirty-three percent of likely S.C. Republican primary voters expressed support for Romney heading into the Jan. 21 contest, according to a TIME/CNN/ORC poll, followed by 23 percent for Gingrich, the former speaker of the House.

That represents a narrowed lead for Romney over his next-closest competitor in the Palmetto State compared to the same poll conducted after the Iowa caucuses. Romney led former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum by 18 points in that poll, and held a 19-point advantage over Gingrich in that poll, conducted Jan. 4-5.

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This new poll, conducted Jan. 13-17, reflects the narrowing race in South Carolina just days before voting in the state, where Romney hopes to pull off victory after having won both previous nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Completing that kind of trifecta could allow Romney to drive his opponents from the race.

The poll is also reflective of the closing momentum Gingrich is enjoying in South Carolina on the strength of more pointed criticism of Romney and other GOP foes. Gingrich also won praise for a strong showing in Monday night's debate, a performance he's hoping to duplicate in a debate on Thursday evening.

Gingrich's surge, though, has also prompted the Romney campaign to revive its offensive against the former House speaker in hopes of parrying his momentum before voting this weekend.

To that end, 35 percent of likely primary voters said they might change their mind on a candidate before Saturday, versus 57 percent who said they will definitely vote for the candidate for whom they expressed support in the poll.

Rounding out the field in South Carolina are Santorum at 16 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 13 percent and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 6 percent.

NBC News and Marist College will release the results of a new poll conducted jointly on Thursday morning.

Looking ahead to the next primary, Florida's Jan. 31 primary, Romney enjoys an even stronger advantage, according to CNN/TIME/ORC figures also released Wednesday.

Forty-three percent of registered Republicans likely to vote in the Florida primary (which is limited to Republicans) said they back Romney. His next-closest competitors are Santorum at 19 percent and Gingrich at 18 percent. Nine percent of Florida Republicans would vote for Paul, who's not competing in the contest, while just 2 percent plan to vote for Perry.

The Florida poll, which was also conducted Jan. 13-17, has a 5 percent margin of error. The sample of likely South Carolina primary voters has a 4.5 percent margin of error.