Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leads ex-U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum by a mere three percentage points as they and other Republican candidates speed toward Arizona's GOP presidential primary, just one week away.
This, according to a survey just released by the North Carolina-based firm Public Policy Polling. PPP reports that Romney tops Santorum 36-33, with erstwhile U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 16 percent, and U.S. Congressman Ron Paul trailing fourth at nine percent.
Those results should be alarming for the Romney camp, which earlier in the month could boast a 24 point lead over Gingrich, who was then Romney's closest rival, according to Rasmussen Reports.
But just days ago, Rasmussen showed Romney's support dropping like a hot rock, with Santorum surging to within 8 points of Romney, 31 percent to Romney's 39.
Romney's lead in the PPP poll is within the survey's 4.8 percent margin of error.
The question I have is whether the recent revelations by my colleague Monica Alonzo regarding Sheriff Paul Babeu's allegedly threatening his ex-boyfriend with deportation will further wound an already weakened Romney.
Babeu recently resigned as Romney's campaign co-chair in the state, and admitted he was gay in a Saturday press conference, while denying his former lover's claims regarding threats of deportation.
In response to reporters' questions, Babeu expressed support for gay rights, including gays in the military and gay marriage, two hot button issues for GOPers.
PPP director Tom Jensen told me he believes the damage to Romney will be minor, but that even minor damage could affect the Arizona primary race, tight as it is.
"I doubt Romney will lose too many votes because of the Babeu scandal," Jensen wrote via e-mail. "But in a race this close even just losing a couple percent could allow Santorum to take the state."
Jensen added that Romney's been doing better with Evangelical Christians and "very conservative voters" than in other states, but this could change in the week ahead.
"Babeu's issues and their taint on [Romney's] campaign could hurt him with some of those groups he's been overperforming with in Arizona," Jensen said.
Romney has flip-flopped over the issue of gay rights, as he has with other issues. In 1994, when he took on then-U.S. Senator from Massachusetts Ted Kennedy, he scored the endorsement of the state's Log Cabin Republicans. Back then, Romney promised to be better than even Kennedy on gay issues.
When he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, he again won the nod of the local Log Cabin Republicans. Though Romney maintains an anti-gay marriage stance, he has expressed support for gay rights during his current campaign for president.
"I don't believe in discriminating in employment or opportunity for gay individuals," he told a New Hampshire paper while stumping during this cycle. "So I favor gay rights; I do not favor same-sex marriage."
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The national Log Cabin Republicans have stated their "reservations" about Romney's statements to "so-called pro-family" groups. But to so-called pro-family Republicans in Arizona, Romney's support of "gay rights," tepid though it may be, will not play well.
Particularly if the subject of civil rights for gays becomes an issue in the primary, raised, perhaps, in light of Babeu's recent admission. The candidates will debate Wednesday night in Mesa, and the Babeu scandal might well come up.
Interestingly, the PPP poll found that an endorsement from Sheriff Joe Arpaio could help swing some Sand Land GOPers.
Also of note are PPP's numbers on the Arizona GOP race for the U.S. Senate nomination, which show Congressman Jeff Flake whipping his closest rival, wingnut Wil Cardon, 56 to 7 percent.