Boosted by pocketbook and electability issues, Mitt Romney leads Rick Santorum nationally among Republicans and independents who lean that way in a campaign driven by the U.S. economy.
A Bloomberg National Poll shows Romney with the support of 37 percent, compared with 27 percent for Santorum. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s backing is 13 percent while U.S. Representative Ron Paul draws 11 percent.
“He’s a businessman and has a better idea of how to run something,” said Republican poll participant Beverly Link, 68, a clerical worker from Maumee, Ohio. “So many things about our country should be run more like a business, instead of just throwing money at everything.”
There are warning signs in the poll for Romney, should the former Massachusetts governor become his party’s presidential nominee. The extended primary season has driven his unfavorability rating up 10 points, to 48 percent, since September.
His past private equity work cuts both ways: it’s a credential that appeals to Republicans, while a slim majority -- 52 percent -- of all Americans view the business practice as harmful to the economy and 68 percent object to the favored tax rate applied to profits generated by the industry.
Romney, 65, has estimated his wealth at as much as $250 million on financial disclosure statements. He earned $21.6 million in 2010, mostly from investments, according to tax returns he released in January that showed he paid an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent. That compares with the 35 percent top marginal tax rate.
Among Republicans, Romney’s work as a private-equity investor at Bain Capital LLC is viewed favorably, with almost two-thirds saying it makes him more prepared than the party’s other candidates to create jobs.
Romney is the favorite among a subset of Republicans who list unemployment and jobs as their top priority, with 52 percent saying he’s the candidate best prepared to get the economy going at a time when national unemployment stands at 8.3 percent.
Link said she isn’t bothered by Romney’s work at Bain, saying such firms “serve a purpose” in making the economy more efficient. “Hopefully, they help more companies than they close down,” she said.
Romney faces a greater challenge with Republicans who are motivated by moral issues and are opposed to abortion rights and gay marriage.
Santorum’s one area of strength against Romney is among evangelical Christians, where he leads 42 percent to 28 percent. Among supporters of the limited government Tea Party movement, Romney and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, draw equal support at 31 percent.
Republicans say Santorum, 53, would be more effective if he focused on the economy. Eight in 10 say he should speak more about jobs, while just 11 percent say he should focus mostly on values, morals and faith.
“On a state-by-state basis, Santorum’s focus on faith is delivering victories and some strong second-place finishes,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co. in West Des Moines, Iowa, which conducted the poll for Bloomberg. “But the heartbeat of the party nationally is the economy.”
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points on the full sample and was taken March 8-11, after the so-called Super Tuesday when primary contests began on March 6 in 11 states. Romney won seven, Santorum took three, Gingrich one.
Mormon Church Ratings
The Mormon Church, to which Romney belongs, is viewed unfavorably by 35 percent of Americans in the poll, while 29 percent have a favorable view and 36 percent say they’re unsure. Republicans have a better view of the church, with 32 percent viewing it favorably and 36 percent unfavorably.
James Samuel, 50, a federal government program manager who lives in Gray, Georgia, said Romney’s faith isn’t a top concern for him, although it’s something he considers to be a negative.
“It’s in the back of my mind all the time,” said Samuel, a Baptist. “I’m more in line with Santorum’s beliefs as a Catholic.”
Republicans are nearly divided on whether others in the race should drop out and allow a two-person contest between Romney and Santorum to emerge.
‘No Mandate’ to Quit
“There is no mandate in this poll for candidates to drop out,” Selzer said. “Maybe potential voters are still uncertain of the right person for the job, or maybe they are enjoying the show.”
Beyond his business background, Romney holds another advantage that many Republicans see as a top priority: 52 percent of the poll respondents said he has the best chance of beating President Barack Obama. That majority compares to 18 percent for Santorum and 14 percent for Gingrich.
Asked who best understands their problems and struggles, 28 percent of Republicans pick Romney and 29 percent Santorum.
One area where Gingrich scores well: as someone who would be an interesting person to have dinner with. On that question, 26 percent of Republicans pick Gingrich, followed by 23 percent for Romney, 20 percent for Paul and 19 percent for Santorum.
Nearly, two-thirds of Republicans said the independent political action committees known as super-PACs have done more harm than good to the primary process.
Unhelpful Outside Groups
The negative advertising financed by those groups and 20 televised debates that often featured the Republican candidates criticizing each other have taken their toll on the candidates, all of whom have higher unfavorability ratings.
The 10-point increase in Romney’s unfavorability rating is the biggest increase among the candidates since a September Bloomberg News poll. Santorum’s unfavorability rating is up 9 percentage points, at 44 percent. Gingrich’s rose just four points, although it’s the highest at 59 percent. Paul’s unfavorability is 44 percent, up 3 points from September.
Almost half of Republicans said their party’s nomination process so far has been too negative in tone, while a third said it has had the right balance and 16 percent view it as a mostly positive race so far.
“There is so much mudslinging and it’s so raw,” said Republican poll participant Joyce Panetta, 62, who works as a school instructional data analyst and lives in Rockville, Maryland.