12/31/2011 09:00 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2012

Mitt Romney Riding High After New Iowa Poll Shows Him In Front

SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- Mitt Romney's first-place showing in Iowa's most anticipated pre-caucus poll Saturday night made it clear that the former Massachusetts governor is riding high, although he still faces potential pitfalls.

Romney led the Des Moines Register survey with 24 percent support from 602 likely Republican caucus-goers, with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) close behind at 22 percent and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) coming in at 15 percent, a full validation of his surging prospects here.

Over the last two days of the survey, in fact, Santorum pulled ahead of Paul to 21 percent, pushing the Texas congressman down to 18 percent. And 41 percent of those who answered the poll said they could still be persuaded to change their minds.

Among the other candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was at 12 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was at 11 percent, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was at 7 percent.

The results came at the end of a subdued day of campaigning, although the Jan. 3 caucuses are still three days away. Paul was not even in the state, having gone home to Texas on Friday night for a two-day break. Romney began the day in New Hampshire and flew to Iowa for two afternoon events.

Santorum, Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich stumped in different parts of Iowa. But the feel in the state was one of voters taking a break to enjoy the year-end holiday, which sucked some of the intensity out of the day's politicking.

One of the more notable signals of the day came from Perry, whose campaign announced that he will go straight to South Carolina on Wednesday, the day after Iowa voters render judgment. It's the clearest sign yet of what Perry aides have told The Huffington Post privately, that they are aiming for a third-place finish to give them enough oxygen to make a stand in the Palmetto State.

But the Register poll numbers demonstrated the challenge facing Perry. He has not managed to move the needle on his support despite being the beneficiary of nearly $3 million in TV ads just this month from his campaign and a super PAC supporting him.

At a campaign stop in the central northern city of Fort Dodge, Perry's wife, Anita, sounded less than convinced of her husband's chances when a voter asked her what she would do if she were first lady.

"We've got so much work to get there that I'm not measuring the drapes," Anita Perry said. "But it would be truly an honor and a pleasure for me to be in that role."

For Romney, the poll results verified that he is in a very solid position here. A win or close second-place showing would send him to New Hampshire with the wind at his back, setting him up for a convincing victory in that primary. In such a scenario, he would have a good chance of then winning South Carolina and Florida, which would effectively make him the Republican Party's nominee, even if he could not technically win enough delegates to clinch the nomination until the spring or early summer.

Romney's top advisers huddled in the lobby of the Stoney Creek Inn here as they waited for the Register poll results to be released. Once the numbers came in, their pleasure was clear, but they declined to comment, saying they would let the numbers speak for themselves.

They have reason still to be cautious, given the volatility of the electorate. Expectations for Romney now are very high, and a disappointing result could hurt him somewhat, although it would have to be a dramatic collapse to do real damage.

A strong showing by Santorum would also help Romney by pushing down Perry and Gingrich, making it harder for them to claim they have momentum. Santorum will have a high-profile platform on Sunday morning, when he appears on NBC's "Meet the Press."

At his second and last stop of the day here, Romney was greeted enthusiastically by another large crowd, as he has been all this past week. Instead of taking on any of the other Republicans, Romney continued to hone a message suited for a general election showdown with President Barack Obama.

"These last three years have been tough for a lot of people. You know that. I think this is a detour, not a destiny for America," Romney said.

He then launched into an extended riff intended to demonstrate that he understands the challenges of regular Americans. This will be key for Romney -- who with an estimated net worth of roughly $200 million is one of the wealthiest men to ever run for president -- since it is already clear that a top priority for the Democrats is to cast him as an out-of-touch elite.

"I want you to remember what it was like when we were thinking about what movie we were going to take the kids to at the end of the week, instead of wondering how we're going to make meals that will last until the end of the week, when you looked forward to opening the paper and reading the headlines as opposed to being afraid of reading the headlines, when you were anxious to look at and see what happened to your retirement account, see it growing, as opposed to frightened to look at it, just like you're frightened to look at the gasoline pump," Romney said.

"I want people who are thinking -- in the past, you remember when you used to think about when you were going to retire, where you'd go, what you'd do? Now you question whether you can retire. I don't think that America's gone. I think it's still out there. I want to reclaim that America," he said.

There were also some light moments. Romney told the crowd upon his entrance, "We're going to spend the whole night here, don't you think, dancing away?"

And a young woman in the audience asked him to make a candy called Pop Rocks more accessible.

"If you become president, I want you to bring those back because those were good," she said.

"I used to remember those. It's been a long time since I've had Pop Rocks," Romney said. "There are a lot of things I can blame on the president. But I'm not going to blame him for getting rid of Pop Rocks. I'm afraid the market just wasn't there."

Another man started to ask Romney whether he had broken the law when he jokingly challenged Perry to bet $10,000 in a debate in Des Moines earlier this month. Romney cut the man off and, still smiling, said, "Let's find another question that's a serious question."

A number of the GOP candidates will attend church on Sunday morning before hitting multiple campaign stops in the afternoon. Romney, who told The Huffington Post he goes to church every week, has nothing on his official schedule Sunday morning, indicating he too will find a place of worship. But in a state where 60 percent of the Republican caucus-going population is estimated to be conservative evangelicals, there is every reason for Romney to keep a visit to a Mormon church low-profile.