Mitt Romney cannot be happy.
A new poll released today shows former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pummeling the former Massachusetts governor in three general election swing states for the Republican nomination. Even more devastating, the survey released by Quinnipiac University also indicates Gingrich performs nearly as well as Romney in head-to-head match-ups with President Obama.
Up until this point, Romney's campaign has been able to credibly argue he is best suited to defeat the incumbent Democrat. Less than a month before the first Republican votes are cast, that critical argument is being undermined.
In Florida, Romney leads Obama 45 percent to 42 percent, according to the poll. Obama leads Gingrich by a margin of 46 percent to 44 percent. In Ohio, the results for Romney and Gingrich are the same--each lead Obama 43 to 42. And in Pennsylvania, Obama leads Romney 46 to 43 and garners 48 percent support to Gingrich's 40 percent.
Numbers like this and the proximity of the first primaries explain why, unlike when candidates such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and businessman Herman Cain shot to the top of the polls, Romney is taking Gingrich head-on. Previous surveys all showed Romney leading the "flavors of the month" when it came to match-ups with Obama and overall electability.
In a conference call with reporters today, Romney supporters attacked Gingrich's ability to act as the Republican Party standard-bearer.
Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent specifically targeted Gingrich's comments from earlier this year when he disparaged Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare reform plan as "right-wing social engineering."
"Gingrich's undercutting of Paul Ryan proves that he is more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principles," Sununu said. "It's really important to see what he did to Paul Ryan as the latest in a pattern of anti-principled actions that really irritated his own leadership."
Talent said that during his time in Congress when Gingrich was House speaker, "we were in a situation where you would get up every morning and you would have to check the newspapers, the clippings, to see what the speaker had said that day that you were going to have to clean up after in your own district."
Both Sununu and Talent tried to emphasize that Romney represents Republicans' best chance at winning the White House in 2012 because of his thoughtful manner versus Gingrich's "off-the-cuff" nature.
"If the nominee is Newt Gingrich, than the election is going to be about the Republican nominee, which is exactly what the Democrats want," Talent said. "They know if this election is about Obama and his policies, they are in trouble. If they can make it about the Republican nominee, then the president is going to win."
Gingrich himself has pointed to his debate skills and reputation as a visionary willing to try out-of-the box ideas as why he should be the GOP nominee, but his campaign did not immediately return a request for comment to rebut the specific criticism from the Romney campaign.
Romney has to hope his full-court press on Gingrich will be enough to stop the Georgian's momentum.
According to the Quinnipiac poll among likely Republican primary voters, Gingrich leads Romney in Florida, which is the fourth primary state, 35 percent to 22 percent. In Ohio, Gingrich garners 55 percent support versus Romney's 28 percent. Gingrich also nearly doubles-up on Romney in Pennsylvania, leading him 31 to 17.
"Gingrich certainly has the momentum on his side and is peaking at the right moment, but Romney has the edge in money and organization, which can be important, especially if the primary race turns out to be a long, drawn-out affair," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a statement.
"It is worth remembering also that four years ago at this time, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the Republican leader," he added.