Gingrich Leads in Des Moines Register Poll, Romney Drops to Third

(Craig Ruttle/AP Photo)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Newt Gingrich is now the frontrunner in the first caucus state of Iowa, according to a new Des Moines Register poll released this evening.

With only a month before the caucuses, the former speaker of the house received 25 percent support of likely Republican caucus-goers, up from only 7 percent in the Register’s last poll in October. Ron Paul came in second place with 18 percent support, and Mitt Romney was third with 16 percent support.

Caucus campaign veteran and current spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Tim Albrecht calls the results an “accurate snapshot” of what’s going on here on the ground, but Albrecht says now it’s Gingrich’s turn to play the expectations game.

“The poll places Newt Gingrich in a must-win position with regard to the Iowa caucuses,” said Albrecht, who is currently unaligned but last cycle served as Romney’s communications director in the state. “The question is if he can build the ground game necessary to be successful. Time will tell.”

The poll was taken before Herman Cain’s suspension of his campaign Saturday and he received 8 percent of the support, the same as Michele Bachmann. But the fact that 11 percent of those polled remained undecided while 60 percent may still change their mind, combined with Cain being now out of the running means the race is still very much up in the air.

“The first thing that jumped out at me is that two-thirds (of those polled) say they are still persuadable voters, which tells me it’s going to be a wild ride for the next four weeks,” says Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. “It still doesn’t seem that Iowa caucus voters are locked in.”

Strawn pointed out this could also mean the candidates are having a hard time cementing those all-important precinct captains for caucus night because of the high number of undecided voters.

Rick Perry tied with Rick Santorum with only 6 percent of the vote.

Perry has been on the airwaves in Iowa for over a month now, but his poll numbers have not budged despite spending nearly $1 million in advertising in the Hawkeye State alone.  Make Us Great Again, the pro-Perry super PAC, has spent at least $202,000 on ads in Iowa as well.

Albrecht says it shows that the Texas governor is just “the latest in a long line of candidates who think merely throwing TV ads on the air will somehow translate into caucus support.”

“A candidate has got to spend time here, or they will never be successful,” Albrecht said. “You can’t spend thousands on ads alone. They are learning a very real lesson tonight, and that is, don’t ignore Iowa.”

One candidate who has not ignored that state is Santorum. Despite campaigning the hardest here, visiting every one of the state’s 99 counties, he remains still at the bottom of the pack only moving up 1 percentage point since the last poll. His barnstorming of the state seems to have made no difference to Iowa voters, but his recent endorsements by evangelical and conservative leaders in both Iowa and New Hampshire, along with the undecided and Cain voters, could possibly help him.

Craig Robinson, former political director of the Iowa GOP who now runs the politics website The Iowa says he still has a chance.

“At the end of the day when voters are done moving around and jumping to whoever is hot it will come down to who they support and who they believe in and they (the candidates) have to hope it is them,” Robinson said. “I think that helps Santorum more than Perry.”

Robinson also says today’s derailment of the Cain Train could help both Santorum and Bachmann in the state.

“Clearing that distraction out of the race might be good for Santorum, that goes for Bachmann, too,” Robinson said. “That’s the one thing they have to be banking on and that is their support is greater than what they are seeing in these polls.”

Although Cain is no longer in the race, the poll shows how dramatically he dropped in the eyes of voters here and how the sexual harassment allegations as well as foreign policy gaffes hurt him. In the October poll he was on top with 23 percent support, but in this poll he received only 8 percent. His most recent scandal, allegations of a 13-year affair with a Georgia businesswoman, broke on day two of polling. The Register reports that over four days of polling Cain went from 12 percent to 4 percent support.

Robinson said Cain supporters in Iowa will go to “multiple” candidates instead of just one and it may not help Gingrich.

“A lot of his (Cain) supporters are super passionate about illegal immigration. They are not going to Gingrich,” Robinson said, referring to Gingrich’s comments at a CNN debate last month where he said he opposed the deportation of all illegal immigrants. “I don’t think they will all go to one place.”

Mitt Romney has sunk to third place, down from 22 percent, a statistical tie with Cain in the last poll. This could give the campaign the opportunity to back off here just as expectations were rising and focus on New Hampshire, but Robinson says Romney’s number is “the story of the poll.”

“Romney is no longer in second place and I think the Romney campaign needs to start — instead of worrying about managing expectations, they need to concern themselves with actually winning. That was the caucus results, it’s a huge loss for Mitt Romney,” Robinson said. “He can’t beat Ron Paul, he can’t beat Newt Gingrich in Iowa. His support is dropping when he is starting to reengage the state. It shows he may have waited too long.”

Romney did get some good news in the Hawkeye state today. The Sioux City Journal endorsed the former Massachusetts governor, as they did in the last cycle. It’s an influential endorsement with just a month to go. Romney did well in that part of the state last cycle and in order to do well here this time he will need to hold on to those supporters.

The paper called him the “best prepared through experience, skills and qualities to lead the country” and it lavishes high praise on the candidate, even comparing him to Ronald Reagan.

“If it’s a ‘family values’ candidate you want, Romney is a good and decent man of integrity who lives the values he espouses,” the Sioux City Journal writes. “By virtue of his bid for president in both 2008 and 2012, no candidate in this year’s Republican field has been vetted like Romney. If no skeleton has been discovered in his closet to this point, it’s likely there isn’t one.”

The editorial also knocks Gingrich and his other opponents, although not by name.

“Do not discount the importance of personal traits in a candidate for president. As we said in our 2007 endorsement of Romney, if a presidential candidate is a polarizing figure within the halls of Congress and devoid of the personal characteristics necessary to inspire Americans to listen and follow, his or her plans have little to no chance of success, regardless of how detailed and well-conceived they might be, “the editorial reads. “Like the popular Ronald Reagan, Romney combines a pragmatic conservatism with confidence (not arrogance) and an easy, comfortable style and manner, even charm.”

ABC News’ Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.