Mitt Romney's taken a modest lead in South Carolina. He's at 30% there to 23% for Newt Gingrich and 19% for Rick Santorum. None of the other candidates hit double digits- Ron Paul at 9%, Rick Perry at 5%, Jon Huntsman at 4%, and Buddy Roemer at 1% round out the field.
Romney's benefiting from very strong personal favorability numbers in the state- 60% of voters see him favorably to only 29% with a negative opinion, numbers that far outstrip anything he ever posted in our Iowa polling. And he also has the most committed support out of the leading contenders. 67% of his supporters say they'll definitely vote for him, compared to only 59% of Gingrich and 44% of Santorum's voters who say that. Among 'solidly committed' voters Romney's lead expands to double digits at 37% to 26% for Gingrich and 15% for Santorum.
Gingrich may be in second place right now but the candidate who would have the best chance of beating Romney in South Carolina is Santorum. He edges out Romney as the candidate with the best favorability rating at 63/21. We tested hypothetical head to head match ups between Romney and the other leading Republican candidates in the instance that were some drop outs before the primary. Romney defeats Gingrich handily in such a match, 49-35. But Santorum runs only slightly behind Romney at 45-40.
There are two things that taken together might make it possible for Santorum to upset Romney in South Carolina. The first is both Gingrich and Perry dropping out. Gingrich's voters prefer Santorum over Romney 52-37 and Perry's do by a 54-41 margin. Either of them dropping out would give Santorum a big boost.
The other thing that would give Santorum the potential for an upset is a Jim DeMint endorsement. 31% of voters say his nod would make them more likely to vote for a candidate. That compares to 15% for Lindsey Graham, 14% for Nikki Haley, 13% for Mark Sanford, and 11% for John McCain. There's no doubt who has the greatest potential to be a king maker in the Palmetto State.
Other notes from our South Carolina poll:
-Although Democrats and independents can vote in the Republican primary if they want to, very few plan to do so. Only 18% of the likely electorate is non-GOP, less than it was in Iowa. And those folks aren't having much of an impact on the race. Romney leads Gingrich by 7 and Santorum by 11 with Republican voters only, the same margin he has with the entire primary electorate.
-Romney's religion really doesn't look to be an issue for him. Only 18% of primary voters say they're uncomfortable with the thought of a Mormon President. Beyond that Romney is doing fine with Evangelicals, posting a 53/34 favorability rating with them and tying Gingrich at 25% for the lead with them while Santorum's just behind at 22%.
-Ron Paul's ability to be a serious factor in the Republican race probably ended after he failed to win Iowa. South Carolina Republicans hate him, giving him a 33/54 favorability rating. That's pretty consistent with what we've seen for Paul among GOP voters most places. It seems possible that if Romney does indeed sweep New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida that it may just end up being him and Paul in the remaining contests. In a head to head Romney leads Paul 67-23...Paul's long term ability to compete with Romney is pretty limited.
-When PPP last polled South Carolina Perry was at 36%. Now he's at 5%. Republican voters in the state don't even like him anymore. His favorability is under water with 42% expressing a favorable opinion of him to 43% with a negative one. A lot of folks have suggested to us that Perry can make a comeback in South Carolina because Santorum did in Iowa. Here's the difference though: even when Iowa Republicans weren't saying they would vote for Santorum, they still said they liked him. Two weeks out his favorability was 52/32, suggesting the possibility for people to shift to him. But South Carolina Republicans don't even like Perry.
-Nikki Haley and John McCain's endorsements are going to get a ton of credit if Romney wins in South Carolina...probably a lot more credit than they deserve. 11% say a McCain endorsement would make them more likely to vote for someone, but 30% say less likely. 14% say a Haley endorsement would make them more likely to vote for someone, but 25% say less likely. Their timing was good though and they'll get labeled as power brokers if Romney wins regardless of what the reality might be.
-Finally it's important to note how truly up in the air the South Carolina race is. 45% of voters are either undecided or open to changing their minds in the next two weeks. And when we asked folks who they thought had run the strongest campaign in the state 49% said they weren't sure, speaking to the fact that the campaign there really hasn't started yet. Romney's in the lead for now but a Gingrich or more likely Santorum surge certainly seems within the realm of possibility.
Full results here