By Colleen Jenkins
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - A surge in support for Republican White House hopeful Newt Gingrich has made him the new front-runner in Iowa, which holds the first of next year's presidential nominating contests, according to a closely watched opinion poll published on Saturday.
Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, has support from 25 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers, up from just 7 percent in late October, the poll conducted for The Des Moines Register newspaper found.
Texas Representative Ron Paul and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney finished second and third, with support at 18 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
Support for Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and former pizza magnate Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race on Saturday, was tied at 8 percent.
Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum each drew 6 percent, and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman rounded out the field at 2 percent.
The Iowa caucuses, set for January 3, kick off the state-by-state contests to choose the party presidential nominee who will challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election.
Cain led the field in the poll conducted in October. His departure, which came after the latest poll was conducted, shapes the wide-open Republican race more clearly into a matchup between Romney and Gingrich.
Reuters/Ipsos poll data released this week showed Gingrich and Romney would benefit most if Cain quit.
Gingrich just this week opened a campaign office in Iowa and has rehired staff, including two campaign advisers who had resigned in June.
MIXED NEWS FOR ROMNEY
"We've got some Newt-mentum going for us here," said Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond.
"We're not hiding the fact that our ground game is a little behind the ball. But what we lack in time we'll make up with intensity and intelligence," said Hammond.
"Iowa is a top priority," he said.
The latest Iowa Poll shows a slip in support for Romney, who had 22 percent support in late October. Iowa has a large bloc of conservative voters distrustful of Romney's past support for abortion rights and a Massachusetts healthcare overhaul that was a precursor of Obama's federal law.
Still, Romney got some good news on Saturday as he drew the endorsement of the Sioux City Journal, which described him as the candidate most capable of "articulating a blueprint for a stronger economy and the restoration of fiscal sanity in Washington."
Campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in an email that Romney would be back in Iowa next week to continue making the case that he is the best candidate to beat Obama.
The Iowa Poll was conducted November 27-30 and was based on telephone interviews with 401 Republicans who are likely to attend the caucuses. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
The poll indicated that voter preferences are far from set in stone. Sixty percent of Republicans likely to participate in a caucus said they are still willing to change their mind about which candidate to support.
In 2008, the poll correctly predicted wins for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in the Republican contest and Obama, then a senator, in the Democratic caucus.