ALAN FRAM, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was winning strong support from Republicans seeking a candidate who can topple President Barack Obama in November's elections, according to an entrance poll of GOP voters attending Iowa's presidential caucuses on Tuesday.
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, was countering with solid backing from tea party supporters, religious voters and other conservatives. And Texas Rep. Ron Paul was scoring highly with young voters, independents and people concerned about huge federal budget deficits.
The divisions helped explain a night in which Romney, Santorum and Paul were running neck and neck — and ahead of their three other competitors — in the year's first votes to be cast as Republicans start selecting their presidential nominee.
Given a choice of four qualities they were seeking in their party's nominee, about 3 in 10 said they wanted someone who could defeat Obama this fall. About half of that group said they were backing Romney, more than twice as many as cited any other candidate.
Santorum was leading among those seeking a candidate with strong moral character, with about 4 in 10 picking him. Santorum and Paul were running about even among those who said they wanted a true conservative as their standard bearer.
Nearly 3 in 10 supporters of the conservative tea party movement were supporting Santorum, and about the same proportion of born-again or evangelical voters were also backing him. That gave Santorum a clear lead among both groups, which are important because each account for about 6 in 10 Iowa GOP caucus goers.
Paul had the backing of about half of voters under age 30 and more than 4 in 10 independents, giving him large leads in both categories. That could be good news for Paul in New Hampshire, where independents represented almost 4 in 10 voters in that state's 2008 GOP presidential primary.
Asked the campaign's top issue, about 4 in 10 named the economy. Romney led among that group with support from about a third of them, underscoring the appeal of his background running an investment company before entering politics and his emphasis during the campaign on his business experience.
About a third of GOP caucus goers said they were most concerned about budget deficits, and 3 in 10 of them picked Paul, more than any of his rivals.
The survey was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research as voters arrived at 40 randomly selected caucus sites in Iowa. The survey involved interviews with 1,737 caucus-goers and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points