Poll: Santorum surges, Obama leads Republicans

By Laurie Kellman

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 22 2012 1:05 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign rally at the El-Zaribah Shrine Auditorium, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — A surging Rick Santorum is running even with Mitt Romney atop the Republican presidential field, but neither candidate is faring well against President Barack Obama eight months before Americans vote, a new survey shows.

Obama tops 50 percent support when matched against each of the four GOP candidates and holds a significant lead over each of them, according to the Associated Press-GfK poll. Republicans, meanwhile, are divided on whether they'd rather see Romney or Santorum capture the nomination, with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul lagging behind. It's a troubling sign for the better-funded Romney as the GOP race heads toward crucial votes in his home state of Michigan, in Arizona and in an array of states on Super Tuesday, March 6.

"I'd pick Santorum, because it seems Romney may be waffling on a few issues and I'm not sure I trust him," said Thomas Stehlin, 66, of St. Clair Shores, Mich. He thinks the Detroit-born son of a Michigan governor is facing a strong challenge from Santorum in his home state because of his tangled answers on the auto industry bailout.

Also, he says, there's this: Romney, the self-described can-do turnaround artist of the corporate world and the troubled Salt Lake City Olympics, with his millions of dollars, has been unable to vanquish his political opponents.

"That may be the reason right there," said Stehlin, a retired government worker and a Republican. "He spends lots of money and he doesn't get anywhere."

Nationally, Republicans are evenly split between Romney and Santorum. The poll found 33 percent would most like to see Santorum get the nomination, while 32 percent prefer Romney. Gingrich and Paul each had 15 percent support.

Romney's fall from presumed front-runner to struggling establishment favorite has given his opponents an opening as he tries to expand his support. His Republican rivals have stepped in claiming to be a more consistent conservative and viable opponent against Obama, and each of the last three AP-GfK polls has found a different contender battling Romney for the top spot. But Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and abortion foe, has hit his stride at a key moment in the nomination contest.

Santorum's spike comes as satisfaction with the field of candidates remains tepid and interest in the contest is cools. About 6 in 10 Republicans in the poll say they are satisfied with the people running for the nomination, stagnant since December and below the 66 percent that felt that way in October. Only 23 percent are strongly satisfied with the field and 4 in 10 said they are dissatisfied with the candidates running, the poll found. And deep interest in the race is slipping: Just 40 percent of Republicans say they have a great deal of interest in following the contest, compared with 48 percent in December.

"It seems like in the last month or so everything's just chilled out," said James Jackson of Fort Worth, Texas, a 40-year-old independent who leans Republican. "I just haven't been following it lately."

Santorum remains Romney's biggest threat. He won GOP contests in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, stunning the GOP establishment that Romney has methodically courted since his first bid for the GOP nomination in 2008. The poll suggested more people are getting to know and like Santorum, with 44 percent of all adults saying they have a favorable impression of him, compared with 25 percent in December. The share with negative views has grown as well, with 42 percent having an unfavorable opinion of Santorum.

Among Republicans in that time period, Santorum has shot from 37 percent to 70 percent favorable.

There's evidence that Santorum's comments about social issues may not have hurt him so far among women.

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