Romney leads in Iowa as Gingrich falters

MITT ROMNEY has seized the lead in Iowa days before the unpredictable heartland state’s caucus kicks off voting to decide the Republican presidential nominee, a new poll showed.

The CNN/Time/ORC survey also confirmed the 64-year-old former Massachusetts governor’s dominance in New Hampshire, the second state to vote, boosting his chances of a possible fast-track romp to the nomination.

“This is going to be so much fun! Why don’t we just caucus right now?” an upbeat Romney told a cheering crowd packed into the warehouse space of a top plastic parts manufacturer.

Taking aim at President Barack Obama’s greatest political liability, Romney charged the embattled Democrat “doesn’t get” how to unleash the private sector to revive the sour US economy and lower historically high joblessness.

He also accused Obama of trying to build an “entitlement society” that would only “create poverty,” charging his approach would make the United States more like debt crisis-hit European nations Greece and Italy.

“I don’t want it to become like Europe, I don’t want big government, with bigger and bigger taxes, and bigger and bigger debt, overwhelming our people,” said the millionaire former venture capitalist.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky blasted Romney, charging that, “if Iowa’s middle-class families had a real chance to kick the tyres and check under the hood, they would see a 17-year political career of waffling on the issues and decisions that have left the middle class behind.”

Romney — often described as the candidate to beat because of his campaign war chest and high-profile endorsements — has struggled to boost his national support past roughly 25% of Republicans.

And the survey gave a fresh sign that the nomination battle remained highly volatile, as fiercely conservative former senator Rick Santorum tripled his showing from similar polls one month ago with 16%.

“I like Santorum. I feel he’s honest and straightforward. But I feel like his lack of experience in the private sector is what draws me more to Romney than to him,” Heidi Eliason, 30, said at the Romney rally.

Romney, who was reluctant to make a big play for Iowa this time around after gambling big here in 2008 but losing out to Mike Huckabee, now finds himself in pole position as his main rival, Newt Gingrich, falters. If he can take Iowa on January 3 and go on to claim an expected victory in New Hampshire a week later, it is hard to see anyone catching him despite lingering doubts among many Republicans about his conservative credentials.

The CNN/Time/ORC poll showed Romney in front in Iowa with 25%, narrowly ahead of Ron Paul on 22%.

Paul, a veteran Texas congressman, has a loyal following in Iowa but his libertarian views are firmly outside Republican orthodoxy and it is seen as highly unlikely that he could win the eventual nomination.

Gingrich, who enjoyed a clear lead in Iowa a few weeks ago after an unexpected popularity surge, polling as high as 33%, has lost ground dramatically after a barrage of negative advertising from his rivals.

The latest poll placed him fourth on 14% and showed him slipping behind Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator whose boom is likely to excite his fervent evangelical supporters.

Lacking the major funding of his richer rivals, Santorum has gone door-to-door in Iowa, pitching himself to socially conservative voters in a time-honoured fashion that has paid dividends for past candidates.

“We’re going up in the morning doing radio shows at six in the morning and going until nine, ten at night, and town meeting after town meeting — 357 in Iowa. Hard work pays off,” Santorum told CNN.

A second CNN/Time/ORC poll indicated Romney was still the overwhelming favourite to win New Hampshire, where he had the backing of 44% of likely Republican voters, up nine points from earlier this month. Paul was second on 17%, while Gingrich had plummeted 10 points since early December and was in third on 16%.

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