Newt Gingrich has relinquished sole front-runner status almost as quickly as he gained it, landing at a dead heat with Mitt Romney in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. And as the GOP hopefuls battle it out, ratings of Barack Obama's prospects have warmed.
Americans now divide about evenly on whom they expect to win the 2012 presidential election: Forty-nine percent plump for the eventual Republican nominee, 46 percent for Obama. While still a weak showing given the usual advantages of incumbency, that's a marked improvement for Obama from October, when 55 percent picked him to lose.
In general election match-ups, this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that Obama holds significant leads over Gingrich and Ron Paul alike; matched against Romney, though, it's a dead heat, 47-47 percent, among registered voters. If Paul's added to the race as an independent (he's not saying), Obama moves ahead of Romney.
Much can change, of course, with the election still more than 10 months away. But as reported separately, Obama's advance to a 49 percent job approval rating may put him back in the game.
GOP - More immediate is the GOP race, whose tumult continues unabated. Gingrich, the latest non-Romney to rush ahead, has 30 percent support for the nomination among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Romney has an identical 30 percent, matching his July high in ABC/Post polls this cycle. Ron Paul has 15 percent, with all others in the single digits.
Gingrich is up from 12 percent in an ABC/Post poll in early November, but he'd done better earlier this month, leading in some national polls as well as in an ABC/Post poll in Iowa, with its Jan. 3 caucuses. His rise followed earlier, unsustained moves for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, as strongly conservative Republicans sought an alternative to Romney.
Indeed, Gingrich leads Romney by a 14-point margin, 36 percent to 22 percent, among "veryconservatives." It's a serious challenge for Romney; while "very conservatives" make up just more than a quarter of all leaning Republicans nationally, they're a motivated group who may constitute a greater share of the turnout at caucuses and primaries alike.
SATISFIED? - Romney takes strength from the perception he's best able to beat Obama. Gingrich comes back on experience, and, perhaps surprisingly, with a broad advantage over Romney as better fit to command the armed forces. (Neither has military service.)
Gingrich, though, is not well-ranked on honesty and trustworthiness, and both Romney and Gingrich suffer from tepid ratings for saying what they really believe; just 51 and 52 percent, respectively, say this describes them. Bragging rights on that attribute belong to Paul - 65 percent believe they can rely on him to say what he really thinks.
Those soft ratings on forthrightness for the two leading candidates may be dampening overall satisfaction with the field. A less-than-ideal 59 percent of leaning Republicans say they're satisfied with the GOP candidates, and a mere 11 percent are "very" satisfied. In late 2007, by contrast, 69 percent of leaning Republicans were satisfied with their choices - as were, on the other side, 81 percent of leaning Democrats, whose candidate ultimately won.
Notably, a broad 64 percent of potential Republican voters say there's still a chance they could change their minds about which candidate to support - leaving vast room for further movement as the GOP race continues to unfold. And a Romney-Gingrich duel, if that's how it develops, could be a long one. Asked which of these two comes closest to them on the issues, leaning Republicans divide almost exactly evenly, 46-45 percent.
That said, either Romney or Gingrich may suffice in the end: Each is the leading second choice among those who have a different first choice.
STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES - Strong conservatives have an objection to Romney that's policy-based, and as such may prove hard for him to move. Among all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 36 percent view Romney's record on health care when he was governor of Massachusetts as a major reason to oppose him for the nomination. That's trouble enough - but among very conservatives, it jumps to 55 percent.
Gingrich has his own vulnerability: Republicans by an 11-point margin, 44-33 percent, have an unfavorable impression of his work as a political consultant after he left elective office, with nearly a quarter undecided. Romney, by contrast, gets a favorable rating for his experience as a corporate buyout specialist, a point on which Gingrich has criticized him.
Romney and Gingrich alike clear other hurdles. Neither Romney's Mormon faith, nor Gingrich's three marriages, appear to be significant negatives to most potential GOP voters. Majorities believe both candidates have the personality and temperament to serve effectively as president (67 and 61 percent, respectively) and think they'd pursue policies most Americans would find acceptable (71 percent for Romney, 66 percent for Gingrich).
Paul falters badly on both those scores - just 37 percent in his own party think he's got the temperament and character to serve effectively, and just 42 percent think his policies would prove acceptable to most of the public. As in Iowa, Paul also loses support for his isolationist views; 45 percent see his opposition to U.S. military intervention as a major negative.
ISSUES and ATTRIBUTES - Ranking across all the candidates, 43 percent of leaning Republicans pick Gingrich as having the best experience to be president, his best-rated personal attribute, with a 20-point advantage over Romney. More generally, 73 percent favorably rate Gingrich's work as House speaker from 1995 to 1999.
Gingrich, as noted, also scores as best suited to serve as commander-in-chief of the military, selected by 35 percent, compared with 17 percent for Romney. On the other hand, 38 percent see Romney as best able to beat Obama; 28 percent pick Gingrich on this attribute.
Ratings on other attributes are more evenly spaced among the candidates. Romney and Gingrich are even on who best represents core Republican values, and essentially so on understanding "the problems of people like you." While 22 percent pick Romney as the most honest and trustworthy, that slides to 13 percent for Gingrich. Even among his own supporters, just 37 percent see Gingrich as the most honest and trustworthy of the Republican candidates.
Differentiation on handling specific issues is not substantial. Romney's got a 6-point advantage over Gingrich in being seen as best able to handle the economy, the critical issue to most potential voters; that occurs entirely among independents who lean toward the Republican Party. The two run essentially evenly on the deficit, immigration and health care.
In one final issue, Romney leads Gingrich, 26 percent to 15 percent, in trust to handle "social issues such as abortion and gay marriage." And on this, Romney outpoints Gingrich even among very conservatives, 23 percent versus 12 percent - suggesting that Gingrich's home in the hearts of strongly conservative leaned Republicans is far from a settled deal.
METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 15-18, 2011, among a random national sample of 1,005 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents, and 395 leaned Republicans. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample and 6 points for leaned Republicans. The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.