WASHINGTON Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney's lead over rival Newt Gingrich edged up to 12 percentage points in Florida, according to Reuters/Ipsos online poll results on Sunday, as Romney's front-runner status stabilized and Gingrich continued to slip.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive, was supported by 42 percent of likely Florida voters surveyed in the online three-day tracking poll, just down from 43 percent in the same poll on Saturday. Romney was at 41 percent on Friday.
But with just two days before the state's primary on Tuesday, Gingrich's support was at 30 percent, down from 32 percent in Saturday's results and 33 percent on Friday.
The gap between the two was 11 percent when poll respondents were asked about a hypothetical head-to-head race between the rivals in the race for the Republican presidential nomination to oppose President Barack Obama in the general election in November.
If the race were between Romney and Gingrich only, Romney would be at 55 percent to Gingrich's 44 percent, according to the Sunday's results. On Saturday the gap between the two was eight percentage points and on Friday it was just two, when respondents were asked the same question.
"Newt Gingrich's position in the primary race is really starting to lose support," said Chris Jackson, research director for Ipsos Public Affairs.
The poll results, similar to those of several other surveys, illustrated Romney's remarkable turnaround since South Carolina's primary on January 21, which Gingrich won in a surprise upset.
"Gingrich got a big boost out of South Carolina, but he's losing that," said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
"It's clear that Romney's run a much more focused and effective campaign in Florida than Newt," he said. "Newt's playing defense every single day in every way and doesn't seem to be able to make Romney play defense."
Romney had two strong debate performances this week and has jumped to a solid lead over Gingrich, whom he had trailed in earlier opinion polls in Florida. He has taken steady aim at Gingrich on the debate stage and in attack ads as a politician who left government under an ethics cloud and has remained a Washington insider ever since.
GINGRICH FACES TOUGH FEBRUARY
Romney has a solid advantage in money and organization over Gingrich in Florida, and the month ahead does not look much better for the former speaker as the state-by-state race for the Republican nomination continues.
Four states with February contests - Nevada, Maine, Colorado and Minnesota - use caucus systems, which can require greater organization to rally voter turnout. That could help Romney take advantage of his superior financial and staff resources.
On February 28, Michigan and Arizona hold primaries. Romney was raised in Michigan, where his father was a governor and car executive.
"February does not look like a good month for Newt," Mackowiak said.
But his failure to gain more support among likely voters in Florida's primary, which is limited only to registered Republicans, shows that Romney is still not electrifying the party faithful. "He's not the guy that everyone loves and rallies behind," Jackson said. "He's not getting that huge rally of support."
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum trailed well behind with 16 percent support, the same as Saturday's level. Santorum seemed to be gaining momentum as an "alternate" to Romney. Thirty-eight percent of likely voters said he would be their second choice if their first choice left the race, up from 33 percent on Saturday and 30 percent on Friday.
But it is probably too close to the January 31 vote to make a difference, Jackson said.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who is not campaigning in Florida, was at 6 percent.
Statistical margins of error are not applicable to online surveys, but this poll of 726 likely voters in the Florida primary has a credibility interval of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points for registered voters.
Sunday's Reuters/Ipsos survey is the third of four daily tracking polls being released ahead of Tuesday's Florida primary.
(Reporting By Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sandra Maler)