WASHINGTON — White House hopeful Newt Gingrich has widened his lead over his rivals, a survey released Thursday showed, as the candidate once left for dead brashly proclaimed he will be next year’s Republican nominee.
The former speaker of the US House of Representatives has surged in the polls in recent days, notably as the campaigns of top-tier presidential candidates Herman Cain and Mitt Romney stall, and Gingrich’s confidence has shot to the fore.
“I’m going to be the nominee,” Gingrich told ABC News. “It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”
Gingrich, a longtime force in the Republican Party, received 38 percent support from respondents in a Thursday Rasmussen survey of likely Republican primary voters, more than twice the support given to Romney, who had been deemed by many to be the default frontrunner.
That lead is the biggest attained by any Republican candidate so far in the roiling pre-primary jockeying that has seen several contenders claim the top spot to challenge Democrat President Barack Obama in next November’s elections, only to fall back a few weeks later.
Most surprising, however, is the huge gap separating Gingrich and Romney, who earned just 17 percent in the poll.
Romney consistently has been among the top contenders throughout the pre-primary season. But in Rasmussen’s national survey of 1,000 people he appears to have lost a great deal of ground to Gingrich. No other candidates received double-digit support, the poll showed.
The result confirms a Quinnipiac University survey of Republican voters that showed Gingrich pulling ahead of Romney by a commanding 49 percent versus 39 percent.
Political experts point out that national polls don’t necessarily reflect what may happen in the primaries — particularly in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, states which vote early in the nominating process to crown the party’s torch-bearer.
In Florida, Gingrich leads second-place Romney by a whopping 24 percentage points, 41-17, according to Thursday’s Insider Advantage poll, while the polling agency’s Tuesday survey showed Gingrich trouncing Romney 38-15 in South Carolina.
In Iowa, the state that kicks off the nomination process with a January 3 vote, Gingrich tops Romney by more than eight percentage points, according to the Iowa Republican Presidential Caucus.
But voters there are notoriously unpredictable, meaning Gingrich rivals could still make a splash there and use it as a springboard going into New Hampshire, where the first US primary vote will be held on January 10.
In New Hampshire, which borders Massachusetts where Romney served as governor, Romney commands 36 percent of the support, with Gingrich trailing at 19.6 percent.
But the former speaker of the House of Representatives is on a roll in the state after he picked up a major newspaper endorsement there at the weekend.
Polls in other states confirm the trend of voter support breaking decidedly in favor of Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman whose campaign was on life support in late summer, after early gaffes and the departure of much of his senior staff.
Gingrich’s rise in the polls, thanks in part to some strong debate performances, has been meteoric: as recently as November 2, the 68-year old former lawmaker earned just 10 percent support, according to Quinnipiac.
But he was recently forced to deny lobbying on Freddie Mac’s behalf after reports emerged that he earned at least $1.6 million from the government lender between 1999 and 2008.
The confessed adulterer has also divorced twice and left his first wife following her treatment for cancer — actions likely to turn off many social conservatives.
With Gingrich suddenly leading the pack, his rivals are taking aim. But while they have begun to attack Gingrich on his record, the former House speaker said he won’t respond in kind.
“I don’t have to go around and point out the inconsistencies of people who are not going to be the nominee,” Gingrich told ABC News.
“I will focus on being substantive and I will focus on Barack Obama.”