Poll: Santorum surges past Romney; both Republicans trail Obama

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum laughs in response to a reporter's question as he leaves a news conference Monday, Feb. 13, in Olympia, Wash.
Elaine Thompson | AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum laughs in response to a reporter's question as he leaves a news conference Monday, Feb. 13, in Olympia, Wash.
Posted Feb. 13, 2012, at 8:57 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 14, 2012, at 5:20 a.m.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama for the first time has opened a sizable lead over his most likely Republican opponents, thanks to growing support among independent voters, according to a new Pew Research Center poll.

The poll, released Monday, showed Rick Santorum in a virtual tie with Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential race. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, has moved up as a result of his backing from tea party Republicans and white evangelicals. He led Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, 30 percent to 28 percent among Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters in the survey, which was conducted Feb. 8-12. In a Pew survey only a month ago, Romney led Santorum 31 percent to 14 percent.

But both Republicans trailed Obama by sizable margins. Obama led Santorum by 10 points among registered voters nationwide (53 percent to 43 percent) and led Romney by 8 points (52 percent to 44 percent). Obama’s lead over Newt Gingrich, who has faded in the GOP race, was 18 points (57 percent to 39 percent). In previous polls in November and January, Romney and Obama were roughly tied. Obama has moved up because of support from independent voters, 51 percent of whom now back him against Romney, a gain of 11 points since last month.

The latest poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press was conducted among 1,172 registered voters nationwide. It found that Santorum has become the clear favorite of tea party supporters and white evangelical Republicans. He wins support from 42 percent of tea party Republican voters compared to just 23 percent who back Romney. Santorum’s margin among white evangelical Republican voters was almost the same, 41 percent to 23 percent.

A major factor driving the Santorum surge is that an increasing number of tea party Republicans do not believe Romney is a strong conservative, the poll showed. Only 29 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who agree with the tea party say Romney is a strong conservative, a steep drop from 51 percent three months ago. More than two-thirds of tea party Republicans (68 percent) now say Romney is not a strong conservative.

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