WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential race is being shaken up again, with Mitt Romney retaking the lead, Newt Gingrich surging into second place, and Herman Cain dropping to third place, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll released Friday.
The poll signaled that Romney retains his steady if uncommanding position and that, in the quest by most Republicans for an alternative, they've cooled on Cain and are starting to turn to Gingrich. It is the first national survey since the allegations of sexual harassment against Cain erupted into a full political firestorm this week.
"Clearly this race has taken yet another dramatic turn. The top tier has gotten more crowded," said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College, which conducted the poll, in New York.
"Romney is still where he's been. It’s fair to say this is a battle for the anybody-but-Romney candidate. Gingrich has now begun his 15 days of fame. Whether he is able to maintain that, as others have fallen, is the question. He may be the only one standing when this is all said and done."
The breakdown of the poll:
— Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, 23 percent;
—Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, 19 percent;
—Cain, the former restaurant executive, 17 percent;
—Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 10 percent;
—Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, 8 percent;
—Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, 5 percent;
—Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, 1 percent;
—Former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, 1 percent;
—Undecided, 17 percent.
The survey of 347 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents was conducted Tuesday-Thursday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.
Among the top tier, Gingrich has the most committed supporters. The poll found that 43 percent of his supporters said they are firmly committed to his candidacy. For Romney, that figure is 30 percent. For Cain, it is 31 percent.
Gingrich’s support stands out even more given that overall, just 30 percent of those supporting a candidate say they are firmly committed. That’s the same as it was in September, and suggests that voters could swing before the voting starts in Iowa on Jan. 3.
"They’re no more firmly committed to the overall field than they were in September," Miringoff said. "We should have seen people feeling a greater sense of conviction. It’s not moving."
The poll suggested support wavering for Cain since two of four women accusing Cain of inappropriate behavior went public with their charges this week, and his news conference denying the charges.
After languishing far back in the pack, Cain shot to the top tier in September and October as rivals such as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas stumbled.
His support shot from single digits in national polls as late as Labor Day, to an average of 25.2 percent in recent polls compiled by the website realclearpolitics. He’s been neck and neck atop the contest with former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who has averaged 23.3 percent in six recent polls.
“His momentum is stalled,” Miringoff said. “ But there is no great urgency on part of Republicans t have him leave the race.”
Asked what they thought about the accusations, 11 percent said they thought Cain did something illegal, 34 percent said he did something wrong but not illegal, 29 percent said he did nothing wrong, and 26 percent were unsure.
Asked what they thought motivated the revelation of the accusations, 48 percent said it was to ruin Cain’s reputation, 28 percent said it was because of the facts of the alleged harassment, and 24 percent said they were unsure.
By 22-69, they said he should not quit the campaign. Another 9 percent were unsure.
Asked to rank what they’re looking for in a candidate, 33 percent said values, 27 percent said experience, 23 percent said agreement on the issues, and 13 percent said electability.
Of those looking first for values, 22 percent supported Romney and 21 percent supported Cain, the top two choices. Of those basing their choice primarily on issues, 28 percent went for Romney and 21 percent to Gingrich; For electability, 26 percent went to Romney and 23 percent to Gingrich. And of those looking first for experience, 25 percent went to Gingrich and 20 percent supported Romney.