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NBC poll: Newt Gingrich gains ground on Mitt Romney in South Carolina

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.


With two days until South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds a 10-point lead over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll of the GOP contest in that state.

But a day after Monday night’s Republican debate – where Gingrich’s performance was considered strong and Romney’s uneven – the poll also shows the former speaker gaining considerable ground on the GOP frontrunner.

Overall in the two-day survey – conducted Monday and Tuesday – Romney gets the support of 34 percent of likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina, including those who are undecided but leaning toward a candidate.

He’s followed by Gingrich at 24 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 16 percent, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 14 percent, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 4 percent.

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Yet the numbers are strikingly different before and after the debate on Monday, when Romney stumbled over whether he would release his tax records (he later said he would do so in April). Also in that outing, Gingrich drew cheers – and even a standing ovation from some – in response to a question about whether his rhetoric about food stamps and janitorial work for poor children was racially insensitive.

“The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history,” Gingrich answered. “I know among the politically correct, you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney visits Hudson's Smokehouse in Lexington, S.C., on Wednesday.

He later added, “I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job.”

Another GOP debate takes place on Thursday evening.

What a difference one debate makes
On Monday before the debate, Romney led Gingrich in the poll by 15 points, 37 percent to 22 percent. But on Tuesday, that advantage narrowed to just five points, 31 percent to 26 percent.

“The numbers on Tuesday were very different than the numbers on Monday,” says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the survey.

And they were especially different among the most conservative segments of the GOP electorate in South Carolina.

On Monday, Gingrich held a five-point lead over Romney among those describing themselves as “very conservative,” 32 percent to 27 percent, with Santorum getting 24 percent.

While on the trail in South Carolina, Mitt Romney said he will release further details about his taxes in April if he secures the Republican presidential nomination. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

But the next day, Gingrich’s percentage with this group jumped up to 35 percent, Santorum’s declined to 20 percent and Romney’s sunk to 19 percent.

Among Tea Party supporters on Monday, Romney edged Gingrich, 35 percent to 27 percent. But on Tuesday, the numbers flipped – with Gingrich at 34 percent and Romney at 27 percent.

And a similar change occurred among likely South Carolina primary voters who are evangelical Christians. On Monday, Romney led Gingrich here, 36 percent to 22 percent, with Santorum at 18 percent. On Tuesday, it was Gingrich at 27 percent, Romney at 22 percent, and Santorum at 19 percent.

While Gingrich gained ground on Romney the day after the GOP debate, his poll position in South Carolina has declined markedly since December, when he led the former Massachusetts governor in the NBC News/Marist poll, 42 percent to 23 percent.

The Bain dog doesn’t bite – at least for now
Romney also can take comfort with this finding from the poll: His past work at Bain Capital doesn’t seem to bother South Carolina Republicans.

Sixty-one percent of GOP primary voters – as well as 42 percent of all registered voters in the Palmetto State – agree with the statement that investment firms like Bain help the U.S. economy. And they agree that while some companies fail or are restructured, others succeed and that’s how the free market works.

By comparison, just a quarter of likely GOP primary voters – plus a third of all registered voters – agree with the statement that investment firms like Bain hurt the U.S. economy when they take over a company; when they lay off workers and reduce their pay; and when they make money for the firm whether or not the company succeeds.

What’s more, 48 percent of likely Republican primary voters believe the recent political attacks on Romney’s past experience at Bain are unfair, while just 22 percent think they’re fair.

And a plurality of likely GOP primary voters – 23 percent – find Romney to be the Republican presidential candidate who best understands their problems. That’s compared with 22 percent for Gingrich, 18 percent for Paul and 16 percent for Santorum.

Other notable numbers in the poll:

•       39 percent of likely Republican voters in the state believe that the ability to beat President Barack Obama in November is the most important candidate quality, and that’s nearly double the percentage who said that in December’s NBC News/Marist poll of South Carolina;

•       a majority (56 percent) think Romney has the best chance of beating Obama;

•       a plurality (30 percent) say that Romney has been the candidate who has spent the most time talking about the issues, while another plurality (41 percent) say Gingrich has been the one who has spent the most time attacking his opponents;

•       another plurality (36 percent) say they like Paul the least;

•       and Obama’s job-approval rating in South Carolina – among registered voters – is 44 percent.

The NBC News/Marist poll was conducted from Jan. 16-17 among 684 likely GOP primary voters (with a margin of error of plus-minus 3.8 percentage points). The pre-debate sample surveyed 349 likely voters (+/- 5.5), and the post-debate sample had 335 (+/- 5.5.).

Among the 2,146 registered voters, the margin of error is plus-minus 2.1 percentage points.