Mitt Romney has a slight lead over Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., in Iowa, according to a new CNN poll. But the survey also shows that former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is surging as the race in the state reaches the critical final stretch.
Santorum has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate, by far, and his strong social conservative record is a natural fit for the traditional caucus-goer. Now, for the first time, we have a poll showing his hard work in the state is starting to pay off. At the same time, Newt Gingrich is tanking.
According to the poll, Romney is at 25 percent and Paul is at 22 percent. Yet Santorum's standing has more than tripled from the previous poll taken at the start of December, to 16 percent. Meanwhile, Gingrich has dropped to 14 percent, from 33 percent in the earlier poll.
As far as the rest of the field: Texas Gov. Rick Perry is at 11, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is at 9, and just 1 percent support Jon Huntsman, who has been focusing on New Hampshire.
At this point, any of these outcomes (a Romney win, Paul win or late Santorum surge) all play into Romney's hands, because Paul is unacceptable to large swaths of the GOP electorate and Santorum lacks the resources to compete seriously beyond Iowa. On top of this, a separate CNN poll finds that Romney is in a commanding position in New Hampshire, at 44 percent.
UPDATE: A number of people have noted that the Iowa poll only surveyed registered Republicans in Iowa, but the state allows citizens to change their registration at the polling site, so independents and Democrats are allowed to vote. The turnout of these crossover voters can make a big difference in the outcome of the caucuses, because Paul polls best among these voters, while Santorum does not poll well.