SIOUX CITY, Iowa — White House hopeful Mitt Romney returned to top of the unsettled field of Republican candidates as rival Newt Gingrich lost support in a poll out Thursday ahead of the final debate before the party’s first nominating event.
Iowa has been flooded with ads and appearances in the final days before the January 3 caucuses to pick who will challenge President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in November 2012 elections.
The largely rural midwestern state barely figures in the general election, but has become key in the nominating races.
Romney won the support of 23 percent of Iowa voters while Gingrich sank 12 points from a month earlier to 20 percent in a Rasmussen Report poll.
Longshot libertarian Ron Paul garnered 18 percent, while conservative darlings Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann held 10 percent and nine percent respectively.
With a margin of error of four points and half of voters saying they could still change their minds, it’s hard to predict how the caucuses will turn out, Scott Rasmussen said.
“With three weeks to go there are three candidates on top vying for the Iowa caucus victory,” he said in a video accompanying the results.
“Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry are a little father back, each of them vying for a ticket out of Iowa. Probably only one of them will make it as a serious candidate.”
While Romney has struggled to win the favor of the party’s conservative base, he has consistently polled at or near the front of the pack while his rivals rise and fall.
“We’ve seen a pattern — a candidate rises to become the frontrunner primarily on the basis of not being Mitt Romney and as soon as the hit that frontrunner status, the numbers begin to turn around,” Rasmussen said.
That fall was “very pronounced” for Gingrich, who has come under attack from his Republican rivals, Democrats and religious conservatives uncomfortable with his marital infidelity.