Washington (CNN) - Newt Gingrich tops the list in the race for the GOP nomination, according to a new national survey.
And a CNN/ORC International Poll released on the eve of a CNN presidential debate focusing heavily on national security and foreign affairs also indicates Republicans consider the former House Speaker the most qualified GOP candidate to be Commander-in-Chief.
See full results (PDF)
Programming note: GOP presidential candidates face off at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, November 22, in the CNN Republican National Security Debate in Washington, D.C.
According to the survey, 24% of Republicans and independent voters who lean towards the GOP say they are most likely to support Gingrich for their party's nomination, with 20% saying they back Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is making his second bid for the presidency.
Gingrich's four point margin over Romney is within the survey's sampling error. A CNN poll released one week ago had Romney at 24% and Gingrich at 22%. Gingrich was at just 8% in a CNN poll in October.
Gingrich's campaign was left for dead by many in May and June, following a number of controversies that spurred some of his top advisers and staffers quit, and that left the campaign coffers in the red.
But the former House Speaker has performed well in 10 major GOP presidential debates held this year, acting as the elder statesman while many of his rivals for the nomination attacked each other.
"I entered this race with a huge amount of background story, some public, some private, which led people initially to think, 'Well, I'm not sure I want him.' And part of what the debates have done is they've been able to see me without editing, and, therefore, they've been able to say, 'Gee, that's not the guy I thought he was,' " Gingrich recently told CNN's Piers Morgan.
"It seems likely that Gingrich's performance in past debates has helped him - 43% say he is the Republican candidate who best understands complex issues, more than double the number who say that about Romney," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
Gingrich gets another chance to shine Tuesday, when he along with seven of his GOP rivals face off in a CNN presidential debate on national security, foreign policy and the economy. CNN is teaming up with the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, two long time Republican-leaning think thanks, to put on the debate, which is being held just a few blocks from the White House.
According to the survey, on national security issues, 36% of Republicans say Gingrich is most qualified to be commander-in-chief - 16 points higher than Romney.
Former Godfather's Pizza CEO and radio talk show host Herman Cain garners support from 17% of the Republicans surveyed. Cain was at 25% support in CNN polling last month, but slipped after a controversy over sexual harassment allegations from his time as head of the National Restaurant Association during the late 1990s.
Rick Perry is at 11% in the new poll. The Texas governor soared to frontrunner status soon after he entered the race in mid-August, but thanks to stumbles in the debates this autumn, Perry's numbers dropped and are now holding steady in the low double digits. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is making his third run for the White House, is at 9%, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is at 5%, with former Sen. Rick Santorum at 3% and former Utah Gov. and former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman at 3%.
While Gingrich has some major strengths, the poll indicates he also has some weaknesses. Only 9% of Republicans say he is the most likable candidate. Republican voters also don't think he's the best choice for getting the economy moving again, and they see Romney, not Gingrich, as the Republican with the best chance of beating President Barack Obama next November.
Gingrich is the latest GOP candidate to surge in national and state surveys, following Bachmann, Perry and Cain. Bachmann and Perry slid after their initial surges, and Cain may be headed in the same direction.
"But don't think that Gingrich has risen in the polls simply because other alternatives to Romney have fizzled," adds Holland. "The number of Republicans who would be pleased or enthusiastic if he won the party's nomination has grown from 51% in May to 70% now - not the kind of numbers you would expect if voters were 'settling' for Gingrich."
Although he is no longer at the top of the list, Romney is viewed as the most likable candidate, and the one most likely to get the economy moving again. And significantly, by a two-to-one margin, Republicans say Romney is the candidate with the best chance to beat Obama.
Although many Republicans are clearly looking for an alternative to Romney, they don't oppose him. Only 28% say they would be displeased or upset if Romney won the GOP nod.
The poll also indicates that the race is far from over: Only 27% of Republicans say they have definitely made up their minds.
The CNN poll was conducted by ORC International from November 18-20, with 1,019 adult Americans, including 402 Republicans and independents who lean towards the GOP, questioned by telephone. The survey's sampling error for Republican primary questions is plus or minus five percentage points.