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This GOP race puts the swing in swing voters

Republican hopefuls take their turns surging in the polls

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 6 2011 12:31 a.m. MST

In this Nov. 30, 2011 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at Tommy's Ham House in Greenville , S.C.

Associated Press

In mid July, Michelle Bachmann's poll numbers reached their peak. By August, Rick Perry surged to the front of the pack of Republican presidential candidates. Herman Cain dominated October. Today, Newt Gingrich is the latest GOP flavor of the month.

A new poll by Gallup shows that Republican voters now consider Gingrich and Mitt Romney the only acceptable candidates. Gallup found 62 percent considered Gingrich acceptable, and 54 percent said the same of Romney.

Perry had 41 percent support, followed by Bachmann and Cain at 37 percent, Ron Paul at 34 percent and Jon Huntsman Jr. at 28 percent.

Surging in opinion polls like that one, a confident Gingrich declared Monday he plans to challenge Barack Obama in every state next year, and he began running a gauzy TV ad — his first — to push toward the Republican nomination to take on the president. But, illustrating how far he has to go, Gingrich also found himself defending the state of his campaign. (See related story.)

The rise and fall of so many candidates in so little time suggests that public opinion is unbelievably fickle. It is hard to imagine a single person could support four such divergent candidates in the course of less than six months.

Yet this is precisely what Washington Post journalist Dan Balz discovered when he traveled to Iowa to talk to Republican voters there.

"'I am on my fourth way of thinking' about who would make the strongest challenger to President Obama," said Arlan Eckland of Dennison, Iowa. Eckland's wife Gwen, is leaning toward Gingrich, after being excited about Bachmann and Perry only to watch them wilt under the media spotlight, Balz reported.

Why has support for GOP candidates shifted so dramatically?

One explanation for this election cycle's volatility is that many conservatives are dissatisfied with Mitt Romney, who they see as the establishment candidate, said Scott Clement, a Washington Post polling analyst. Media attention, and in particular debates, may also have an impact, he said. In their search for an alternative, these voters are swayed by the media attention lavished on potential challengers. The volatility in polling numbers prompted Michael Salsman, Forbes Magazine political columnist, to accuse Republicans of being the "real flip floppers." Ultimately, however, fluctuating opinion polls do not mean that Americans are unprincipled opportunists, experts say. They just haven't found what they are looking for.

Voter Dissatisfaction

The success of anti-establishment candidates such as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Mike Lee in the 2010 midterm elections made it clear GOP politics is undergoing a tectonic shift. Forces within the Republican party affiliated with the tea party movement, including Freedom Works and local grassroots groups have "helped move the Republican party to the right," says Vanessa Williamson, co-author of the new book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. The rise of the tea party means many on the right expect candidates that reject moderate positions. "Call them tea party or social conservatives or whatever you want, but they want a Republican nominee who is a no-holds-barred, unadulterated conservative" wrote Charlie Cook in his political column for MSNBC.

That many of the Republican presidential hopefuls dipped their toes in liberal waters doesn't sit well with tea party activists. Only one in ten of Republican or Republican leaning independents who support the tea party agenda say they are "very satisfied" with the field of candidates, says Clement, the Washington Post pollster.

Some do not consider Romney, who served as governor of what is often considered the most liberal state in the nation, a true believer. "Romney is not a conservative," said right wing pundit Rush Limbaugh on an October installment of his radio show. "He's not, folks. You can argue with me all day long on that, but he isn't. What he has going for him is that he's not Obama."

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