Gingrich surges in South Carolina and Florida

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a meeting with employees at Nationwide Insurance, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is riding a wave of popularity, taking a commanding lead among likely Republican primary voters support in South Carolina and Florida, according to the latest NBC News/Marist poll.

Gingrich took 42 percent of likely primary voters in South Carolina, where the eventual Republican nominee has won the primary contest in every election since 1980. South Carolina holds its primary Jan. 21, after the Iowa caucuses kick off the primary season Jan. 3 and New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary.

Gingrich's standing in South Carolina gives him nearly double the support of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney took 23 percent in South Carolina in the poll. Texas Rep. Ron Paul followed with 9 percent, followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann with 7 percent each.

In Florida, Gingrich took 44 percent to Romney's 29 percent. Both states reflect strong surges for Gingrich, who was in single digits in Florida and South Carolina as recently as October.

Gingrich is also on top in first-in-the-nation voting state Iowa, according to a recent CNN/Time/ORC pollthat showed him leading Romney 33 percent to 20 percent. In New Hampshire, a Romney stronghold, the former Massachusetts governor maintains the lead with 35 percent to Gingrich's 26 percent, according to the same poll.

The surge from Gingrich shows the difficulty for Romney, who has been polling in the mid twenties for months. A string of candidates has surged and then flopped, including Bachmann, Perry and Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race earlier this month.

But Gingrich may have timed his surge perfectly, cresting just as actual voters have to make up their minds.

With that in mind, Romney began attacking the former speaker in recent days, most recently asking Gingrich to pay back close to $2 millionhe earned from mortgage giant Freddie Mac. 

  • Corbett Daly On Twitter» Deputy Politics Editor Corbett B. Daly is based in Washington. He has worked at Reuters, Thomson Financial News and CBS MarketWatch.