MANCHESTER (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman is gaining support in New Hampshire at the right time, days before Tuesday's key primary election, but he still trails front-runner Mitt Romney by a prohibitive margin.
Also on the move in the new poll was former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, who surged into fourth place from a base of almost no support in the northeastern state.
Shifting voter loyalties come as Republican contenders for their party's nomination to run for U.S. president in November's election square off in two debates over the weekend and stage a whirlwind of campaigning before the New Hampshire primary.
The new poll by American Research Group showed Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China who has staked his hopes on a strong showing in New Hampshire, jumping into second place.
Romney, a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, had 40 percent support in the survey of 600 likely Republican primary voters done on Friday and Saturday. That was up from 35 percent in the group's previous poll in mid-December.
Huntsman was second with 17 percent, up from 13 percent, while support for Texas Congressman Ron Paul slipped to 16 percent from 21 percent.
The ARG survey was done in the days after Huntsman was endorsed for the New Hampshire primary by the Boston Globe, Romney's hometown newspaper, which is distributed widely in southern New Hampshire.
Santorum, who lost narrowly to Romney in this week's Iowa caucuses, surged to 12 percent from just 1 percent in December. Support for former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich fell to 8 percent from 16 percent.
Romney had a wide lead among New Hampshire's registered Republican voters and also among those who considered themselves supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement.
Independents, who can vote in Tuesday's primary, split their votes more evenly - 30 percent for Romney, 24 percent for Huntsman and 20 percent for Paul.
Another survey, released on Friday by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, showed Huntsman with 16 percent support from likely voters in New Hampshire, behind Romney at 37 percent and Paul at 19 percent.
Reporting By Ros Krasny; Editing by John O'Callaghan