Washington (CNN) - It's the biggest headline in a national poll full of headlines: Newt Gingrich has surged and is now basically tied with Mitt Romney in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
According to a CNN/ORC International Poll released Monday, 24% of Republicans and independents who lean towards the GOP say Romney is their most likely choice for their party's presidential nominee with Gingrich at 22%. Romney's 2-point advantage is well within the survey's sampling error.
While the level of support has pretty much stayed the same for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who's making his second bid for the White House, the former House speaker has seen his support jump 14 points since October.
"It's better than when I was at four [percent]," Gingrich said Monday on the campaign trail in Iowa.
But he cautions that anything could happen, saying that "this is the most volatile race of my lifetime."
The poll also indicates that 14% back businessman Herman Cain, down 11 points from last month. Four women have alleged that Cain sexually harassed them during the late 1990s when he headed the National Restaurant Association. Cain denies the allegations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race at the top of the pack but went into free-fall after a series of well-publicized stumbles. He sits at 12% in the CNN survey, basically tied with Cain.
So now it looks like it's Gingrich's turn to become the "anybody but Romney" candidate. If the GOP race becomes a two-man battle between Romney and Gingrich, the poll indicates they are well-matched. Romney and Gingrich are the two most popular Republican candidates among the GOP rank and file, and the only two with favorable ratings above 50% among the Republicans surveyed.
More than three-quarters of Republicans think both men have the right personal qualities to be president and more than seven in 10 Republicans say they agree with Gingrich and Romney on important issues.
"The key difference between Romney and Gingrich is electability. For the first time in CNN's polling, Romney now tops Barack Obama in a head-to-head matchup among registered voters. But Gingrich faces an 8-point deficit when paired with Obama in a general election matchup," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.
So what's behind Gingrich's rise in the new CNN poll and other recent surveys from other organizations?
Gingrich says that his well-received performances in the Republican presidential debates are one reason. His campaign was left for dead by many in late spring, after a number of top advisers and staffers quit and the campaign faced financial difficulties. But the former House Speaker has performed well in the 10 GOP presidential debates held this year, acting as the elder statesman while many of his rivals for the nomination attacked each other.
"I have to say, I'm very humbled that millions of people watched the debates and the general conclusion was that in fact I had real substance and real solutions," Gingrich said. "And that they prefer my approach of being positive to the kind of consultant-driven negativities that I think actually hurt the candidates that are negative."
"He's a sharp debater. He has been an intellectual and political force in the Republican Party in five different decades. When we started the race, we were assuming that was going to make it very difficult for him because the Republicans would be looking for a fresher face, said Ron Brownstein, Political Director for the Atlantic Media Company.
"There is the reality that there is a big chunk of the party, the more conservative, the more evangelical side of the party that does not want Mitt Romney and has simply not been able to settle on an alternative. So Gingrich is now getting his day in the sun," added Brownstein, a CNN political contributor.
With seven weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the primary and caucus calendar, voters are now getting engaged in the race for the GOP nomination.
"As we get to within the six-weeks-to-go mark before the Iowa caucuses, Republican voters are going beyond test drives and are now sitting around the kitchen table deciding which candidate(s) will be best for their families. Thus, the drop in support for Cain and Perry which had been going into the 'undecided' column, is now to a large degree going into Newt's column," said Rich Galen, a GOP political analyst who advised Fred Thompson during his 2008 GOP presidential bid, and who is the author of Mullings.com, an online column.
"So, Newt's thinking goes, he doesn't need to beat Romney - he needs to consolidate the non-Romney vote and he's the only one who can do that," added Galen, who served as communications director for then-House Speaker Gingrich's political shop in the 1990s, but who is not taking sides in this nomination battle.
With the Iowa caucuses closing in, it appears Gingrich is surging at the right time. But the candidate doesn't appear to be getting cocky.
"This is a wild race, okay? Who knows what the polls are going to be two months from now. I mean, I'm not going to tell you that I'm on the way," Gingrich said. "The American people are really deeply concerned about our country. They have a real sense that something has to happen. And I think that they're going to keep pushing until they find somebody who can take the pressure and can withstand it."
- Follow Paul Steinhauser on Twitter: @PSteinhauserCNN