By Susan Page
WASHINGTON â€“ Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney essentially ties Barack Obama in the nation’s top dozen battlegrounds, a USA TODAY/Gallup Swing States survey finds, while rival Newt Gingrich now trails the president by a decisive 14 percentage points.
That reflects a significant decline by the former House speaker since early December, when he led Obama by three points.
The poll of the states likely to determine the outcome of November’s election addresses the electability argument that has driven many Republican voters: Which GOP contender has the best chance of denying Obama a second term?
In a head-to-head race, Romney leads Obama by a statistically insignificant percentage point, 48%-47%, the survey finds. Romney’s support hasn’t wavered from his standing in early December, while Obama’s standing against him has risen by four percentage points.
But Gingrich has seen his prospects against Obama significantly decline. Now, Obama leads him, 54%-40%. The president’s standing against him has risen nine points since early December; Gingrich has fallen by eight. In fact, Gingrich now fares less well than Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who trails Obama by seven points, 50%-43%, or than former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who also trails Obama by seven points, 51%-44%.
The Swing States survey focuses on the nation’s most competitive battlegrounds: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico,North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The findings presumably reflect the barrage of attacks on Gingrich’s temperament and record by Romney and other prominent Republicans, from Arizona Sen. John McCain to former Senate majority leader Bob Dole. The former House speaker has drawn fierce fire since winning the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 and surging to the top of national polls.
In debates and on the stump, Romney argues his record as a successful businessman as well as former governor of Massachusetts give him the standing to handle the economy that will defeat Obama. Gingrich says his bold policy prescriptions and conservative credentials would offer a clearer choice than a “Massachusetts moderate” like Romney who instituted a state health care plan similar to the federal one Republicans now deride the president for signing.
The nationwide Gallup daily poll shows Gingrich’s lead fading across the country. On Sunday, the survey showed Gingrich at 28% among likely Republican voters, Romney at 26%. On Friday, Gingrich had held an eight-point lead over Romney.
In the Swing States survey, Gingrich saw his standing against Obama plummet by double digits among some key demographic groups: parents with children under 18, men ages 18 to 49 years old, and higher-income voters â€” that is, those with household earnings of $7,500 a month and above.
In the battlegrounds, voters in both parties rate Romney higher than Gingrich on a series of characteristics. Nearly six in 10 say Romney has the personality and leadership qualities a president should have; just 42% say Gingrich has those qualities. Fifty percent call Romney sincere and authentic; 38% say that of Gingrich.
Romney has a smaller advantage on the question of managing the government effectively, and neither does particularly well when asked if they understand the problems Americans face in their daily lives: 44% of those surveyed say that applies to each.
The survey of 737 registered voters, taken Tuesday through Saturday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.