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In Iowa, it's not all good for Gingrich

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaks at a town meeting at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Monday, Nov. 21, 2011
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaks at a town meeting at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 AP Photo/Cheryl Senter

The headline from the new CBS News/New York Times poll is pretty simple: Newt Gingrich is way out front in Iowa. But it's not all good news for the former speaker. Two-thirds of likely Iowa Republican caucus goers haven't made up their minds--and our poll indicates there could be problems ahead for Gingrich.

Bottom line: It may look like it's shaping up nationally to be two-man Gingrich-Mitt Romney brawl. But in Iowa, our poll indicates it could well be a four-person race: Gingrich, Romney, Ron Paul and a "true" social conservative like Michele Bachmann. And that means it as wide open as ever.

That's right. When you look past the horserace stuff (which you have to do since most voters say they haven't made up their minds), the poll is packed full of fascinating data about what Iowa voters are thinking and care about. It has some potentially ominous signals for Gingrich. It also has some good news for Paul--and surprisingly good news for Bachmann.

First, the horserace. When asked their choice for the nominee, here's what likely Republican caucus goers had to say:

Gingrich (31 percent); Romney (17 percent); Paul (16 percent); Rick Perry (11 percent); Michele Bachmann (9 percent); Rick Santorum (4 percent); and Jon Huntsman (1 percent).


Here's the good news for Gingrich: His solid debate performances have translated into a commanding lead on many key attributes reflecting leadership and presidential readiness. When asked which candidate was "most prepared to be president," 43 percent of likely Iowa caucus goers said Gingrich, with Romney a distant second at 20 percent. Voters had a similar response when who was "most qualified to be commander in chief," with Gingrich pulling in 40 percent to Romney's 19 percent.

But on the crucial issue of the economy -- which seven in 10 Iowa voters surveyed said was more important to them than social issues -- Romney edges Gingrich by only a point (22 percent for Romney; 21 percent for Gingrich).

Remember, this is in Iowa, where expectations for Romney are low. But voters also said Gingrich, not Romney, had the best chance to beat President Obama--with Gingrich at 31 percent to Romney's 29 percent.

Also remember this poll was taken before Gingrich started getting front-runner scrutiny--or withering attacks from opponents (which are coming-- an abbreviated version of Paul's devastating web ad accusing Gingrich of "serial hypocrisy" will make its television debut).

With 66 percent of Iowa voters saying they could still change their minds, there are several things in our poll that hint at problems for Gingrich once voters are inevitably reminded of his past--including that seven in 10 Iowa Republican voters think a candidate's personal life is relevant.

Gingrich also could be vulnerable on the issue of abortion. He's supported federal funding for some abortions in the past. He's said he would campaign for candidates who supported partial birth abortion. And just last week, on the fundamental issue of when life begins, he told ABC's Jake Tapper it was at successful implantation--not conception. That of course set off a huge outcry on "pro-life" blogs, since there is a 5-9 day window between conception and implantation. If you think life begins at implantation, you would condone the morning after pill, as well as some forms of embryonic stem cell research.

Poll: Gingrich takes double-digit lead in Iowa
Iowa evangelicals, Tea Partiers backing Gingrich
Read the complete poll (PDF)

Gingrich has since clarified to say he meant conception, but in our poll, 41 percent of white evangelicals said they would not support a candidate who had changed positions on abortion. While people assume that finding is a problem for Romney, it may be a bigger problem for Gingrich--since white evangelicals/social conservatives weren't flocking to Romney, anyway.

So if Gingrich stumbles with evangelicals and tea party voters, there is an opening for a "true" social conservative to take those voters from him.

Our poll indicates that candidate could be Bachmann. She is the candidate Republican voters surveyed say best shares their values and promotes conservative principles. Our poll shows she's picked up more of Cain's supporters in Iowa than any other candidate. She also comes in third among all voters in favorability -behind Gingrich and Romney, though like Romney her unfavorable are high (30 percent).

But she's had the scrutiny that Gingrich is about to get, so his unfavorables are unlikely to stay at 16 percent. Bachmann also polls high in enthusiasm. She is tied with Romney for second (34 percent), behind Newt at 43 percent. And she does well with women--whereas the poll shows a gender gap emerging already for Gingrich--he does much better among men (35 percent) than women (26 percent).

Bachmann's campaign tells me she's planning to spend the entire next month in Iowa--she is focusing everything there. One negative for her: she doesn't have the money for the kind of the kind of ads that Paul or Rick Perry will be running.

Speaking of Paul, Gingrich doesn't even have to stumble among evangelicals for him to be a factor. He already has a strong and committed organization in Iowa. Among all voters, he is second to Bachmann as the candidate who voters think best shares their values and promotes conservative causes. He is second to Gingrich as the candidate who best understands their needs and problems.

And he is first when voters are asked which candidate says what he believes. Romney wins the dubious prize as the candidate who says "what people want to hear."

As for enthusiasm--Gingrich, not surprisingly, is generating the most right now, with 43 percent saying they would enthusiastically support him if he is the Republican nominee. But Romney and Bachmann are tied for second with 34 percent. And Paul is at 31 percent.

Special report: Election 2012

When you look into the various voting groups, Paul gets most of his support from voters who identify themselves as "independent." Among those voters, he's running a close second to Gingrich, with 20 percent to Gingrich's 22 percent.

Those Ron Paul voters are enthusiastic now--and committed. And that commitment and his solid organization on the ground could push him from 16 percent in our poll to the 20s come January 3--which after all, is just four weeks from today.

I could be writing about this poll for days, but a couple other notes for now:

  • Rick Perry has moved into double digits, and has the money to spend on advertising. But he isn't polling as well as Bachmann on some of the questions above.
  • Rick Santorum, despite spending a lot of time in the state, isn't resonating.
  • On the Republican Party, Iowa voters have a positive view, with 63 percent thinking it's going in the right direction. And stories of the Tea Party's death are greatly exaggerated: 73 percent think it has either the right amount of influence or too little.
  • Finally, when asked about the future, only 17 percent think it will be better for their children than today. That's the American Dream--and that's what will motivate all these Republican voters to turn out next November, no matter who ends up as the nominee.