Romney slides 10 points in 5 days in the NH Suffolk poll

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s lead in New Hampshire has dropped by 10 points in the last five days, but he’s still the clear frontrunner in the Granite State, according to a Suffolk University/7News poll released this morning.

Romney retains support among 33 percent of likely voters for a 13-point lead ahead of second-place Ron Paul, who commands support from just 20 percent of likely voters. Jon Huntsman comes in third at 13 percent, Newt Gingrich fourth at 11 percent and Rick Santorum fifth at 10 percent. Rick Perry and Buddy Roemer (yes, Buddy Roemer!) combined attract just 3 percent. (Remember: Perry has opted not to actively campaign in New Hampshire, even though he participated in the two debates this weekend. He continues to bank on a big finish in South Carolina.)

However, another poll — a WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll released last night — suggests Romney’s support hasn’t weakened at all. That poll puts Romney at 41 percent, for a 24-point lead over a Ron Paul with 17 percent. Santorum bests Gingrich in this poll, 11 percent to 8 percent. Jon Huntsman remains in the mix, with 11 percent.

Two other positive signs for Romney in this poll: The vast majority of likely Republican primary voters — 78 percent — say they expect Romney to win, and 55 percent say he stands the best chance to beat Obama.

The discrepancy between the two polls — the one showing Romney on the wane and the other showing Romney holding steady — might stem from the time frames for the polls. The Suffolk poll was conducted Saturday and Sunday, equally before and after the last two New Hampshire debates. The WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday, mostly before the debates. Romney came out of the debate Saturday night relatively unscathed by the other candidates, but, overall, he didn’t project a particularly charismatic or presidential persona. Sunday morning, the other candidates did make a point to attack him. In combination, the debates might have cast doubt on Romney supporters and/or invited likely New Hampshire voters to take a second look at the other candidates. It’s definitely true that this cycle has been very debate-driven.

The upshot of both polls, though, is that Romney remains the perceived inevitable winner of the first-in-the-nation primary, but the race for second-place is wide open. For now, it appears Ron Paul will capture that spot, but, as Ron Paul isn’t exactly a conventional candidate for the “conservative alternative to Romney” slot, his finish matters less than the order in which Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich finish. Both need to garner compelling two-digit support to build momentum as they move into South Carolina.