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Romney leads Republicans, narrows gap with Obama: poll

U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he arrives on stage to speak at a campaign event in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he arrives on stage to speak at a campaign event in Washington

By Jeff Mason and Alistair Bell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has sailed farther ahead of rival Republican candidates nationally and narrowed President Barack Obama's lead in the White House race, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday.

Thirty percent of Republicans in the poll would vote for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, compared to 18 percent a month ago.

The poll suggests Romney has consolidated support among Republicans since winning the first nominating contest in Iowa by a slim margin last week.

He is expected to win New Hampshire's contest on Tuesday, propelling him forward in his quest to take on Obama in November.

Obama leads all of the Republican candidates in the poll, but Romney is gaining ground.

The survey showed Obama leading the Republican front-runner by 48 percent to 43 percent, compared to a 48 percent to 40 percent difference a month ago. The former governor bested Obama in a poll conducted in late October.

With both Obama and Romney strengthening their positions nationally, the competition between the two men is getting closer, Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson said.

"Now that Mitt Romney looks like he's got a clearer path to the Republican nomination, his standing is improved as well, so this race is tightening between Romney and Obama," he said.

Romney polled the strongest against the president. Obama beat former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich 53 to 38 percent, Congressman Ron Paul by 48 to 41 percent, and former Senator Rick Santorum by 51 to 40 percent.

The president, who is benefitting from better economic data including improved jobs figures, maintained a steady approval rating of 47 percent, the same as last month.

RIVALS WAY BEHIND

Romney's closest Republican rival in the national poll was Gingrich, who had 20 percent support, down from 28 percent in December.

Gingrich lost momentum after a disappointing fourth place finish in Iowa, where he suffered from negative ads funded by a group associated with Romney.

Paul was next in the Republican race, coming in with 16 percent support. Santorum, who placed a close second in Iowa, was next with 13 percent, followed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who came in at 7 percent.

The results in New Hampshire's contest will determine whether Romney can build on his momentum going forward.

Despite fierce attacks from his rivals, he is expected to win New Hampshire handily. If he does so, the margin of his victory will determine his strength going into the next state contests in South Carolina and Florida.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted January 5-9. It mostly took place before the toughest days of Romney's campaign in New Hampshire, where he had to fend off attacks on Monday about his record as a businessman and venture capitalist.

The poll was conducted by telephone with 1,046 adults and is considered accurate within 3 percentage points.

For a graphic on the poll, please click on: http://link.reuters.com/byx85s

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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