TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - As Florida voters begin to focus on the state's pivotal GOP presidential primary at the end of January, the leading contenders are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, according to a poll by TelOpinion Research.
Romney and Gingrich are essentially in a statistical dead heat, with Romney leading with 27 percent of the vote to Gingrich's 26, according to the telephone survey of 780 Republican voters, conducted from Dec. 15-19.
Bill Lee, a Republican pollster who co-founded TelOpinion, said that matches the national pattern, with Romney and Gingrich drawing most of the media attention.
"Leading into Iowa, this is essentially a tie ball game between those two," Lee said.
The trend also matches an ideological split that appears to have hampered Romney's drive to the nomination: Doubts remain about him among the most conservative elements of the Republican Party and religious conservatives. Among self-identified members of the tea-party movement, Gingrich leads by eight points, 28-16. The two men almost evenly divide other voters, 28-26 in favor of Romney.
Gingrich also leads by 14 percentage points among very conservative voters, while Romney holds a 15-point edge among those who call themselves "somewhat conservative." The two are essentially tied among moderates, with Gingrich holding a 20-17 advantage.
Gingrich also leads Romney among those who attend church more than once a week, with those who go to church weekly about evenly split. Voters who attend less frequently favor Romney, often strongly.
The poll was conducted just as Gingrich, who surged to the front of the pack on the strength of debate performances, saw his numbers begin to slip in Iowa and elsewhere under a barrage of attacks from his competitors and so-called Super PACs supporting them.
And 31 percent of Republican voters in Florida said they hadn't decided who to back, meaning the race remains volatile with about a month to go before the Jan. 31 primary.
None of their other competitors hit double digits. Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose libertarian streak has vaulted him into contention in Iowa, holds just 5 percent of the votes of those surveyed by TelOpinion. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- who had hoped to perform strongly in Florida -- were next, tied at 4 percent.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who had initially based his campaign in Florida before shifting his focus to New Hampshire, was tied with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum with 1 percent.
Brian Graham, a Republican consultant in Florida not aligned with any of the candidates, said he wasn't surprised that the candidates drawing the most coverage are getting the highest numbers.
"They are the candidates with the most name ID," Graham said. "This is a big state. ... Most candidates haven't paid much attention to Florida right now."
As votes roll in from early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and candidates ramp up their efforts in Florida, Graham said the situation could change, even beyond the voters who call themselves undecided.
"I would highly doubt that any of the voters are truly, truly firmly decided on their candidates," he said.
The poll was another dose of bad news for Perry, who had taken a lead in the state shortly after announcing his candidacy but before a series of debate gaffes undermined his candidacy.
Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, one of Perry's earliest supporters, brushed aside a question earlier this month about whether he was surprised that the governor's campaign had failed to gain traction.
"I think if anything, I'm surprised at the overall ups and downs of all of the candidates," Cannon said.
Graham said Perry's gaffes had badly hurt him among Republican voters who are concerned chiefly with defeating President Barack Obama in the November elections.
"I think that a lot of Republicans were uncomfortable with Rick Perry's inability to perform well with public speaking and the debates," he said.
But Lee said the 31 percent undecided bloc could still make room for one more candidate with the necessary resources if it moves beyond Iowa and the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire. Perry raised millions before his troubles began.
"The third player might be Governor Perry," Lee said.
Copyright 2011 by The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.