LOS ANGELES — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is able to claim the front-runner status in the four early states to choose the GOP presidential candidate, according to the latest polls, but the real question is whether he can coax the large number of tepid Republicans into his camp.
Throughout this GOP electoral season, Romney has been at the top or near the top in almost every major poll, but his plurality has never been large enough to drive out the competition. Seemingly at every turn, factions in his party have been able to push forward an "Anybody But Mitt" candidate, whether it be businessman Donald Trump, conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann or governors including Rick Perry, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels. All have had their followings and a moment in the sun before the political clouds rolled in.
With less than 10 weeks before Republicans start the selection process with the Iowa caucuses, the CNN/Time/ORC International polls released Wednesday show that Romney has a sizable lead in two states: New Hampshire, the first primary state, and Florida. He has a narrow lead in Iowa and South Carolina, where businessman Herman Cain is breathing down his neck in what is a statistical tie.
Cain, an upstart who has shot to the top of most recent polls on the strength of his economic platform of 9-9-9 — 9 percent corporate and individual tax rates with a new 9 percent national sales tax — has a solid grip on second place. Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian icon, is in third place in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina at 12 percent and is just behind Texas Gov. Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Florida, where they are tied for third.
Perry, who zoomed to the top in the polls when he announced his presidential bid in August, has had the biggest drop-off, statistically tied with Gingrich in all four contests, but with neither getting much beyond single digits. For Gingrich, that is a bit of a surge as his campaign has picked up some steam, probably as a result of debates in which he has done well, unlike Perry, who has generally been panned.
But beyond the horse-race numbers is a GOP electorate that remains fluid, impressionable and unconvinced. In no state does the number of those who say they will definitely support their choice for the GOP nomination exceed a one in three ratio. Indeed, in two states majorities said they might change their minds: Iowa at 62 percent and South Carolina at 56 percent, while Florida was at 50 percent. New Hampshire has the highest number who said they will definitely support their choice, 32 percent. But even there, 48 percent, nearly half, said they might change their minds.
In Iowa, which will hold its caucuses on Jan. 3, 24 percent of registered Republicans said they are for Romney, with Cain at 21 percent.
In New Hampshire, where Romney has a home and which is next door to Massachusetts, Romney is at 40 percent with Cain at 13 percent. The first-in-the-nation primary is expected to be Jan. 10, though the official announcement is pending.
South Carolina's primary follows on Jan. 21; Romney is at 25 percent there, to Cain's 23 percent. In Florida, whose primary will be Jan. 31, Romney has 25 percent and Cain 18 percent.
The polls in each state were conducted for CNN and Time magazine by ORC International, based on interviews from Oct. 20-25. The interviews were with 405 registered Republicans in Iowa, 401 registered Republicans in Florida, 400 registered Republicans and registered independents who said they voted in the 2008 Republican primary in New Hampshire, and 400 registered voters who identified themselves as Republicans in South Carolina. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Perry may skip debates
Rick Perry may skip some upcoming GOP presidential debates, sidestepping a campaign staple that hasn't been kind to the Texas governor in his first two months on the national stage. It's a decision that ultimately could cause other Republicans to bow out of the more than half-dozen face-offs scheduled between now and the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
Perry does plan to participate in a Nov. 9 debate at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. — his sixth — but he hasn't committed to any others beyond that as political advisers hunker down to determine how best to proceed. He's juggling fundraising and retail campaigning with only two months before the first votes in the Republican nomination fight are cast.
"We haven't said no, but we're looking at each debate," campaign spokesman Mark Miner said Thursday. "There are numerous — 15, 16, 17 — debates, and we're taking a look at each one and we're making the appropriate consideration."