Newt Gingrich led Mitt Romney 34-28 in PPP's South Carolina polling last night, the first of what will be three nights of tracking. Ron Paul at 15%, Rick Santorum at 14%, Rick Perry at 5%, and Buddy Roemer at 3% round out the field.
This is not a case of Romney imploding. His support has been pretty steady in the 28-30% range in our South Carolina polling so far. But Gingrich has risen from 23% to 34% over the last two weeks, benefiting from declining support for Santorum and also from undecided voters moving into his camp.
It's clear that the debate Monday night did a lot to help Gingrich's prospects in the state. 56% of voters say they watched it, and with those folks Gingrich's lead over Romney is 43-27. Romney still has a 29-22 advantage on Gingrich with those who didn't tune in.
Gingrich is starting to consolidate his support with some of the more conservative parts of the South Carolina electorate. He has a 50-18 advantage on Romney with Tea Party voters. He's up 39-23 with those describing themselves as 'very conservative.' And he even has a 37-20 advantage with evangelicals.
Gingrich is clearly flying high. The big question now is whether ABC's interview with his ex-wife tonight will stifle all this momentum. For instance, will his strong support from evangelicals remain intact after they hear accusations that he wanted an 'open marriage?'
Rick Perry's exit from the race shouldn't make a huge difference. He was only polling at 5% and his supporters were evenly divided on their second choice with 26% each picking Gingrich and Romney. It's possible though that his endorsement will cause more of those supporters to move in Gingrich's direction.
Just for fun on this poll we tested the alternative universe in which Stephen Colbert had been allowed on the South Carolina ballot and he gets 8%, putting him in 5th place and ahead of Perry's 6%. Perry joins Jon Huntsman as GOP candidates who have trailed Colbert in our South Carolina polling and then exited the race.
Colbert's 8% is up from 5% in a poll we conducted two weeks ago, making him the only candidate besides Gingrich and Paul whose support has risen since that time.
We will conduct our first post-Perry, post-Marianne Gingrich interviews tonight. Expect fresh numbers sometime between 10 and 11 PM.
Full results here