WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich is the strongest Republican candidate when matched head to head against Democratic President Barack Obama, according to a McClatchy-Marist Poll released Tuesday.
The former speaker of the House of Representatives is neck and neck with the incumbent president, back just 2 percentage points among registered voters. Obama leads 47 percent to 45 percent.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is next closest, trailing Obama by 4 percentage points. In that matchup, Obama leads 48 percent to 44 percent.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is the third best bet for the Republicans right now, 8 points back from Obama. No other Republican is within single digits of Obama. The survey has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The poll, coming as Gingrich has surged within the Republican field, could boost Gingrich's argument that he would be the party's best voice to debate Obama in the general election.
"He runs better," said Lee Miringoff, director of Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in New York, which conducted the national survey. "It's a closer race with him than with Romney or the others."
The poll last week reported that Gingrich had surged into second place among Republicans seeking their party's presidential nomination, trailing Romney and moving ahead of businessman Herman Cain.
"If this fall has been about anything, it's been the search for the anyone-but-Romney alternative," Miringoff said. "Clearly the next two weeks will be telling whether this is fleeting for Gingrich, or is he now the person around whom the more conservative elements of the party will coalesce."
Finding a strong candidate is critical for Republicans, as Obama continues to show general election strength despite 9 percent unemployment.
On one level, he's extremely vulnerable. Just 43 percent of registered voters approve of the way he's doing his job. On the economy — the top issue for most voters — 59 percent disapprove of Obama's performance, while 36 percent approve.
Also, just 38 percent say they definitely plan to vote for Obama, while 48 percent say they definitely will vote against him. Among independents, just 30 percent say they'll definitely vote against him; 52 percent say they are certain no votes.
Yet Obama fares better when matched up against specific Republicans. Beyond the neck-and-neck match-ups with Gingrich and Romney, the numbers are:
_ Obama 49-41 over Paul;
_ Obama 49-39 over Cain;
_ Obama 51-40 over Gov. Rick Perry of Texas;
_ Obama 54-35 over Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
One reason why Gingrich and Romney do better than other Republicans against Obama is that they both win independent voters, who swing back and forth. Gingrich wins independents by 47 percent to 41 percent over Obama. Romney does even better with that swing bloc, carrying them 55 percent to 39 percent.
Gingrich does better among Republicans than Romney, though, winning 84 percent of their support, vs. Romney's 80 percent.
A key question for Republicans is how those numbers would hold up heading into a general election. Gingrich would have to win over more independents; Romney would have to squeeze out more support from Republicans.
They both get the support of 83 percent of tea party voters. They also have identical support among conservatives, each getting 73 percent of conservative support in a hypothetical general election faceoff with Obama.
On other issues, the survey found:
_ Obama would win a three-way general election with Romney as the Republican and either Donald Trump or Ron Paul as a third party candidate;
_ Voters by a margin of 60 percent to 29 percent say they don't support the Occupy Wall Street movement;
_ By a margin of 66 percent to 25 percent, they don't support the tea party movement;
_ Voters by 50 percent to 33 percent think the tea party movement will have more influence in the presidential election than the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Nature of the sample: A national poll of 1,026 adults.
This survey of 1,026 adults was conducted on Nov. 8-10. Adults 18 years of age and older residing in the continental United States were interviewed by telephone. Telephone numbers were selected based upon a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cell phone numbers. The two samples were then combined. Results are statistically significant within plus or minus 3.0 percentage points. There are 872 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The error margin increases for cross-tabulation.
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