Gingrich holds clear lead in new South Carolina poll

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich reacts to a question at the start of the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012.
AP Photo/David Goldman

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich may have pulled too far ahead in South Carolina for Mitt Romney to catch up, according to a poll of likely Republican voters in the Palmetto state released Friday.

The former speaker has the lead with 32 percent in a new Clemson University poll, conducted January 18-19. Romney comes in second with 26 percent, while Rep. Ron Paul places third at 11 percent and former Sen. Rick Santorum places fourth with 9 percent. Twenty percent of voters remain undecided. The poll has a 4.73 percent margin of error.

In a separate poll released Thursday by American Research Group (ARG), Gingrich and Romney were essentially tied, 33 percent to 32 percent for the former Massachusetts governor.

The six-point difference between Gingrich and Romney in the Clemson poll may be too large for the former Massachusetts governor to make up before Saturday's primary -- even following the charge from Gingrich's former wife Marianne that Gingrich had asked her for an "open marriage." Gingrich has denied that charge.

"We expect a reaction by the electorate to the personal revelations about Gingrich to be registered on Saturday, however, we do not think it will be substantial enough to erase the lead Gingrich has over Romney," Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard said in a statement.

After naming their preferred candidates, voters were asked what they liked most about that candidate. The two most popular answers were "he has honesty and integrity" and "his overall political ideology" -- suggesting that electability may not be voters' highest priority.

After Romney virtually tied for first in the Iowa caucuses and won the New Hampshire primaries, he appeared to be on his way to securing the nomination. Now, however, Gingrich is closing in both in South Carolina and nationally.