By JoAnne Allen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has taken a commanding lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, hitting the 40 percent mark for the first time in the campaign, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday.
Gingrich is the first choice of 40 percent of Republican primary voters compared with 23 percent support for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the poll found.
But the survey also found deep unease with the Republican front-runner among independents and swing voters who normally decide presidential elections, the Wall Street Journal reported.
In a hypothetical contest with President Barack Obama, Gingrich trails the Democratic incumbent by more than 10 percentage points (40 percent to 51 percent) while Obama leads Romney by 2 percentage points (47 percent to 45 percent).
According to the poll, a majority of Republican primary voters, 51 percent, view the field of candidates competing to challenge Obama in the 2012 presidential race as "average," according to the poll.
Only 21 percent of respondents believe the Republican field is strong and 27 percent say it is weak, the survey found.
The remaining Republican candidates polled below 10 percent with Texas Representative Ron Paul at 9 percent, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Texas Governor Rick Perry at 6 percent, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman at 5 percent, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum at 3 percent.
The poll of 1,000 people was conducted December 7-11 and has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.