Raleigh, N.C. — The Republican field has been cleared for Mitt Romney in North Carolina's primary next week, but a new WRAL News poll shows that President Barack Obama would carry the state if the general election were held now.
SurveyUSA polled 451 likely Republican voters statewide between last Thursday and Monday and found that Romney should cruise to an easy victory in the primary with 55 percent of the vote.
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who led the GOP field in a WRAL News poll in mid-March but has since suspended his campaign, would finish second in the primary, with 15 percent of the vote, according to the new poll. Texas Congressman Ron Paul would finish third, at 12 percent, while former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is expected to drop out of the race this week, would get 11 percent.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percent.
Romney hasn't yet gained full confidence of the most conservative members of the Republican Party, the poll shows. Santorum and Gingrich combined to win support of 41 percent of respondents who called themselves "very conservative," compared with 49 percent for Romney. It was one of the few demographics where Romney finished with less than 50 percent support.
In a head-to-head vote, however, the former Massachusetts governor comes up short against Obama.
SurveyUSA asked 1,636 registered voters in North Carolina who would get their vote for president if the election were held today, and Obama beat out Romney 47 to 43 percent, with 9 percent of voters still undecided. The margin of error in the poll is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
"This is going to be a very tight race for the next six months," said David McLennan, political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh.
The gender gap breaks in Obama's favor, with 50 percent of women favoring him and only 41 percent for Romney. The president also wins among younger voters, with wide leads among all groups under age 50.
Although independent voters said they favor Romney by 46 to 41 percent, the poll shows that people who consider themselves moderate back Obama by a 55 to 32 percent margin.
McLennan said that Romney moved to the right to shore up his standing among conservative voters in the primaries, but he now has to move back to the center to claim more moderates when facing Obama.
"He's got to come back and address those moderates," McLennan said. "President Obama won two-thirds of the moderates (in North Carolina) in 2008. President Obama needs that, and Mitt Romney needs to cut into that gap."
Obama has a 12-1 lead among black voters, but Romney captures 55 percent of white votes, according to the poll. Romney also leads among affluent voters, while the candidates are in a virtual dead heat for middle-class votes.
Obama would carry the Triangle by a 55 to 37 percent margin and also holds a slight lead in eastern North Carolina, the poll shows. The two candidates are deadlocked in the Triad, while Romney holds a lead in the Charlotte area.