Romney holds 8-percentage point lead in Florida

JACKSONVILLE, Florida Fri Jan 27, 2012 6:36pm EST

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney takes the stage at a campaign stop at Astrotech Space Operations in Cape Canaveral, Florida January 27, 2012.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney takes the stage at a campaign stop at Astrotech Space Operations in Cape Canaveral, Florida January 27, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

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JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has opened up a lead of 8 percentage points over rival Newt Gingrich in a Reuters/Ipsos poll in Florida, as he regains front-runner status in the Republican race.

The online poll released on Friday showed Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and private-equity executive, ahead of Gingrich by 41 percent to 33 percent among likely voters in Florida's January 31 Republican primary.

It confirms Romney's recovery in polls, aided by strong debate performances, after a stinging defeat at the South Carolina primary vote last weekend.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum trails with 13 percent and Texas Congressman Ron Paul would get 5 percent of the vote.

"We've had a pretty wild ride here throughout this primary process but right now in Florida it looks like Romney's back on top," said Chris Jackson, research director for Ipsos Public Affairs.

Other polls in Florida have shown Romney pulling ahead of Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted on Thursday and Friday, partially capturing likely voters after the most recent debate in Jacksonville where Romney was seen as a clear winner.

Statistical margins of error are not applicable to online surveys but this poll of 732 likely voters has a credibility interval of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

GINGRICH STRONGER IN HEAD-TO-HEAD

Conservatives are still somewhat splintered. The poll found that Gingrich and Romney would be virtually tied if Santorum and Paul dropped out of the race.

Romney would win by 50 percent to 48 percent if the race were just between him and Gingrich.

Gingrich has also suffered in recent days from high-profile allies of Romney criticizing the former speaker's tenure in Congress, as well as from a barrage of attack advertisements against him.

Florida allows voters to cast their ballots by mail ahead of time, and 29 percent said they had already done so. Romney led Gingrich by 7 percentage points among this group. Among those who have yet to vote, Romney held a 9-point lead.

Questions in the poll include whether participants voted in previous elections, their likelihood of voting in the upcoming election and their interest in following news about the campaign.

Friday's Reuters/Ipsos survey is the first of four daily tracking polls being released ahead of Tuesday's primary.

(Editing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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