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Image: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry
Chris Carlson  /  AP
Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry interact during a Republican presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas.
By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 10/19/2011 11:23:57 AM ET 2011-10-19T15:23:57

Former businessman Herman Cain holds a narrow lead in South Carolina’s Republican primary, and he’s running neck and neck in Florida with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, according to two new NBC News-Marist polls.

These two states have played pivotal roles in past Republican presidential nominating contests: Since 1980, the winner of South Carolina’s GOP primary has gone on to win the party’s nomination, while Florida ultimately decided the party’s pick in 2008. This cycle, South Carolina’s contest will occur on Jan. 21 and Florida’s will take place on Jan. 31.

“The road to the convention is going to go through these two states,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion.

Story: Romney and Perry spar at Nevada debate
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In South Carolina (Download poll PDF), Cain gets the support of 30 percent of likely GOP primary voters — determined by past participation, interest and chance of vote — and Romney gets 26 percent. They’re followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 9 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 6 percent and Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul at 5 percent each; 15 percent of likely primary voters are undecided.

Among a broader pool of Republicans in South Carolina, Cain is at 28 percent and Romney is at 27 percent.

In Florida (Download poll PDF), Cain is at 32 percent among likely voters, Romney at 31 percent, Perry at 8 percent and Paul and Gingrich are at 6 percent; 11 percent say they are undecided.

Among a broader range of Florida Republicans, Romney is at 30 percent and Cain is at 29 percent.

Breaking down the Cain vs. Romney divide
What is particularly striking is the difference in support between Cain and Romney in both states. Cain performs better among Tea Party backers, very conservative voters, evangelical Christians and Republicans who have viewed the past GOP debates.

Romney, by contrast, over-performs among Republicans who don’t identify with the Tea Party, as well as those who consider themselves liberals and moderates.

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“This is a very, very divided electorate,” said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll.

And there’s also a divide in the level of support. In South Carolina, 45 percent of Cain’s supporters in South Carolina strongly back him, versus 37 percent of Romney’s. In Florida, 52 percent of Cain’s supporters strongly back him, versus 41 percent of Romney’s.

As in the recent NBC-Marist polls of Iowa and New Hampshire — which showed Romney leading both contests — likely Republican voters in both South Carolina and Florida place more emphasis on issues and values than on experience and electability.

In South Carolina, a combined 58 percent say a candidate sharing their values or their positions on the issues is more important in deciding their vote. That’s compared with a combined 39 percent who say experience and electability will determine their vote.

In Florida, it’s a combined 54 percent for values and issues, versus 44 percent for experience and electability.

Also in South Carolina, 53 percent of likely GOP voters don’t believe Mormons are Christians, or say they are unsure about it. Among those respondents, Cain leads Romney (who is Mormon), 33 percent to 19 percent — with Perry at 11 percent.

In Florida, just 42 percent of likely GOP voters don’t believe Mormons are Christians or are unsure.

Obama vs. the GOP field
President Barack Obama’s approval rating in Florida — a key general-election state — stands at 41 percent, with 49 percent disapproving of his job performance.

In a hypothetical general-election match up in the Sunshine State, the president is up two points on Romney, 45 percent to 43 percent. He leads Cain by six points, 47 percent to 41 percent. And he’s ahead of Perry by eight points, 47 percent to 39 percent.

Story: Hard-hit Nevada will be key battleground in 2012

In South Carolina — a GOP stronghold in presidential contests — Obama’s job-approval rating stands at 40 percent, and he trails Romney, Cain and Perry in head-to-head match ups in the Palmetto State.

The South Carolina survey was conducted Oct. 11-13 of 2,131 total registered voters (with a margin of error of plus-minus 2.1 percentage points) and of 639 likely Republican primary voters (plus-minus 3.9 percentage points).

The Florida poll was conducted Oct. 10-12 of 2,225 total registered voters (with a margin of error of plus-minus 2.1 percentage points) and of 524 likely Republican primary voters (plus-minus 4.3 percentage points).

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Gloves come off at GOP debate in Vegas

  1. Closed captioning of: Gloves come off at GOP debate in Vegas

    >> to politics and the gop presidential race . things got very heated during last night's debate out in las vegas . nbc's political director and chief white house correspondent chuck todd has the blow byeby blow. chuck, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. well, look, apologies for the cliches but last night's republican debate, the gloves came off and it turned into a good old-fashioned fight night in vegas.

    >> because you hired illegals in your home and you knew for it -- about it for a year.

    >> reporter: struggling to get back into the race, rick perry took an answer about his health care records to level a personal attack on front-runner mitt romney that caught everyone off guard.

    >> the idea you stand here before us and talk about that you're strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy.

    >> reporter: perry referring to this 2007 " boston globe " report that romney for a full year used a lawn service that used un undocumented workers.

    >> i don't think i've ever hired an illegal in my life -- i'm looking forward to finding your facts on that da.

    >> i'll tell you --

    >> rick, you had the floor. i'm speaking.

    >> the newspaper --

    >> i'm speaking. you get 30 seconds. this the way the rules work here and then you get 30 seconds to respond, right?

    >> they want --

    >> anderson.

    >> you knew you had illegals.

    >> will you please work?

    >> are you going to keep talking?

    >> reporter: the exchange was raw and personal.

    >> a tough couple of debates for rick and i understand that so you're going to get testy. [ cheers and applause ] but let's let -- i'll tell you what, let me take my time and then you can take your time, is that all right.

    >> have at it.

    >> we hired a lawn company to mow our lawn and they had illegal immigrants were working there. when that was pointed out to us, we let them go. -- do you have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking and i suggest if you want to become president of the united states you got to let both people speak.

    >> reporter: the debate began with everyone taking shots at herman cain and his 9-9-9 plan.

    >> go to new hampshire where they don't have a sales tax and you fixing to give them one.

    >> this is an example of mixing apples and oranges .

    >> so then governor perry was right --

    >> no, he was not. he was mixing apples and oranges .

    >> and i'll get a bushel basket of both because i'm paying taxes.

    >> you don't have credibility when it comes to repealing obama care. your plan was the basis for it.

    >> this was crafted for massachusetts. it would be wrong to adopt this as a nation. you're shaking your head --

    >> that's not what you said. you said you're speaking for everybody. took it out of your book.

    >> let me --

    >> your last --

    >> i tell you what --

    >> rick, you had your chance. let me speak. rick, you had your chance, let me speak.

    >> you're out of time.

    >> he ate into my time.

    >> rick --

    >> i'm sorry.

    >> i haven't had a chance to respond because you interrupted me the entire time i was trying to speak.

    >> well now you understand why these next poll results are about to debut are what they are and what happened at last night's debate. the new marist polls herman cain is ahead. rick perry trailing badly at 11%, florida, another important primary state, it's mitt romney at 30%, herman cain at 29%. rick perry at 9%. you understand why rick perry felt he had to go after romney and why everybody felt they had to go after romney and cain.

    >> thanks very much.

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