WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White House hopeful Mitt Romney widened his lead over rival Newt Gingrich to 11 percentage points in Florida, according to Reuters/Ipsos online poll results on Saturday, up from 8 points a day earlier, as he cemented his front-runner status in the Republican nomination race.
With just three days remaining before Florida’s Republican primary, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, led Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, by 43 percent to 32 percent among likely voters in Florida’s January 31 primary, the online poll said.
He had led Gingrich by 41 percent to 33 percent in the online tracking poll on Friday.
“The momentum in Florida ... really seems to be moving in Romney’s direction,” said Chris Jackson, research director for Ipsos Public Affairs.
The poll confirmed that Romney’s fortunes are turning around in Florida a week after a stinging setback when Gingrich scored an upset win in South Carolina’s primary.
Romney has moved ahead of Gingrich in several Florida polls, after turning in his strongest debate performance yet in the seesawing race for the Republican nomination to oppose Democratic President Barack Obama’s bid for re-election in November.
The Reuters/Ipsos survey showed Romney also gained when voters were asked who they would support in a head-to-head contest with Gingrich. Saturday’s results showed that 53 percent would support him, versus 45 percent for Gingrich.
In the results released on Friday, Romney had led by just 2 percentage points when voters were asked the same question.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum trailed well behind with 16 percent support, but he had gained ground from 13 percent in Friday’s results.
“It seems like some people who are leaving Gingrich are moving to the other conservative in the race, Rick Santorum,” Jackson said.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul was at 6 percent, up from 5 percent. The small-government libertarian has not been campaigning in Florida.
Romney has subjected Gingrich to a blistering run of attack advertisements in Florida. He has assailed Gingrich for leaving Congress under an ethics cloud in the 1990s and for being a Washington insider and lobbyist in the two decades since.
Gingrich denies he ever worked as a lobbyist, but has yet to find an effective way to parry Romney’s attacks.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, capturing many voters after the most recent debate in Jacksonville on Thursday, where Romney was seen as a clear winner.
Florida lets voters cast their ballots early at polling stations or by mail, and 30 percent of the poll respondents said they had done so, compared with 29 percent on Friday.
Romney held a 12-point lead among those who had already voted, and an 11-point lead among those who had not yet voted.
Statistical margins of error are not applicable to online surveys, but this poll of 903 likely voters has a credibility interval of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Saturday’s Reuters/Ipsos survey is the second of four daily tracking polls being released ahead of Tuesday’s Florida primary.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham