Newtmentum spreading to the south

Two new NBC News/Marist polls just released after the last debate should be giving fans of the former Speaker of the House even more reason to be filled with Christmas cheer. (H/T to OTB) While you’ll need to keep your eyes on the numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, Newt is also making some big moves in two states voting close on their heels.

According to new NBC News-Marist polls, the former House speaker has now opened up commanding leads in South Carolina and Florida — two states that historically have played important roles in deciding the eventual Republican nominee.

Fueled by the support from conservatives and the Tea Party, Gingrich is ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by nearly 20 points in South Carolina. The winner of that state’s primary has gone on to capture each GOP nomination since 1980.

And he leads Romney by double digits in Florida, whose primary ultimately ended up deciding the party’s pick in 2008.

“You can see why the Romney people are getting a little itchy,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion, referring to the Romney campaign’s recent attacks on Gingrich.

In South Carolina, Gingrich comes in riding high at 42 points. (All the more amazing since he was at seven there in the same poll in October.) Mitt drops five points to 23 and everyone else is in single digits. (Here are the full results if you care to pore through them.)

Meanwhile, in Florida, (voting a week after the Palmetto State) Newt has seen an equally meteoric rise. He’s jumped up from six in October to 44 this week.Romney drops almost the same amount he did in South Carolina and comes in at 29. Again, there’s nobody else in serious contention. (The full Florida numbers.)

Perhaps the most interesting nugget in the cross tabs is the extremely heavy Tea Party support which Newt is channeling. This is a group which traditionally has been targeted for candidates who are “Washington outsiders” and/or “real social conservatives.” Both the media and Newt’s many critics have certainly tried to paint Gingrich as being anything but – in both categories – but it doesn’t seem to have had any effect. Among self-identifying Tea Party voters, Newt is getting more than 50% support as their first choice.

If these numbers manage to hold through the holidays, Mitt Romney has a lot to worry about. If Newt can string together wins in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida and even come up with a strong second in New Hampshire, Romney could be out of this thing before we even get to Super Tuesday.