Did Newt Gingrich peak too early? CNN poll shows him fading

A new CNN poll shows signs that Newt Gingrich has peaked – like fellow GOP candidates Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, all of whom surged rapidly in the polls only to fall.

Chris Usher/CBS News/AP
In this Dec. 18 photo provided by CBS News, Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich appears on CBS's "Face the Nation" in Washington. Gingrich continued to level harsh attacks on the judicial branch Sunday, saying as president he would consider dispatching U.S. marshals to force judges to appear before Congress to explain controversial decisions.

The bad news keeps piling up for Newt Gingrich.

A new CNN national poll released Monday shows the former House speaker now tied for the lead with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, each with 28 percent in a survey of likely Republican primary voters. Ron Paul is in third with 14 percent, a 5 point rise since CNN's last poll a month ago.

Mr. Gingrich's lead in the polls – which was in the double digits for most of this month – has been steadily eroding, according to Real Clear Politics poll tracking, but the CNN survey is the first major national poll in over a month to show Gingrich not in the lead at all.

The poll comes on the heels of a Public Policy Polling survey showing Gingrich now significantly down in Iowa, well behind both Ron Paul (the leader) and Mr. Romney.

Combined, it adds fuel to the signs that Gingrich has peaked – and is following in the footsteps of fellow GOP candidates Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, all of whom surged rapidly in the polls, only to fall rapidly as voters grew disenchanted.

Also notable is just how undecided primary voters still are, with the Iowa caucuses 15 days away.

Just 35 percent of those polled indicated they had made up their minds; the rest were undecided or said they might still switch candidates.

Romney beat Gingrich solidly on likeability (30 percent said he was the most likeable candidate, compared with 15 percent each for Gingrich and Ms. Bachmann). And 32 percent of those surveyed said Romney was the candidate who best represents the personal characteristics and qualities a president should have, compared with 21 percent for Gingrich.

Gingrich, however, seems to come across as more of a leader: 42 percent called him the strongest leader, compared with 26 percent for Romney.

"Romney's appeal to Republican voters seems to be based mostly on his personal qualities, many of which – including likability and trustworthiness – are problem areas for Gingrich," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland in CNN's analysis of the poll. "For Romney, that's not a bad position to be in when six in ten Republicans say that personal characteristics will matter more than issues when they decide which GOP candidate to support."

Gingrich has also clearly been hurt by the steady attacks from both Romney and Mr. Paul.

The trends bode poorly for Gingrich – especially since he lags far behind Romney in campaign organization and fundraising – and the next few days are critical ones for him to try to convince voters that he remains a viable candidate.

He's been trying hard to run a positive campaign – turning his ire on "activist" judges rather than on his fellow candidates – but that may change as he fights to maintain his position.

One spot of good news for Gingrich: He's apparently the choice of tea party supporters, emerging as the victor in an unscientific straw poll conducted by conference call Sunday evening.

Gingrich, Romney, Bachmann, and Rick Santorum all participated in a call with activists, in which they answered questions and gave a brief plea for support.

Gingrich got 31 percent of the vote, and Bachmann came in second with 28 percent. Romney received 20 percent, and Mr. Santorum 16 percent.  Second place went to Bachmann, who won 28 percent. Romney won 20 percent, and former Sen. Rick Santorum won 16 percent. Paul, Perry, and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman all declined to participate.

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