Poll: Romney still ahead, but with big vulnerabilities in quest for GOP nod

Mitt Romney leads the wide-open contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. But a new Washington Post-ABC News poll underscores his vulnerabilities as a front-runner, as well as Sarah Palin’s lingering power to shake up the race if she decides to run.

The former Massachusetts governor again tops the field, with Palin second and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) third. Without Palin, Bachmann moves to second, and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) runs third, the only other candidate to score in double digits.

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Romney also runs ahead of the pack on three crucial attributes: leadership, experience and, perhaps most important, who can beat the president next year. But overall, Romney’s support is tepid, particularly among the party’s most energized constituency — the strong supporters of the tea party movement.

It is because of those shortcomings that many Republicans are speculating about who is best positioned to emerge as Romney’s strongest competitor. Most of the recent focus has been on Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is publicly weighing whether to enter the contest.

What the new poll highlights is the hold that Palin still has on segments of the party faithful despite some long-standing liabilities and deep skepticism among many voters about her qualifications to be president. In the poll, Palin shows certain strengths that none of the others chasing Romney does at this point.

Without Palin in the race, Romney tops the field at 30 percent to Bachmann’s 16 percent, with Paul at 11 percent. Perry is at 8 percent.

Were she to run, however, and a primary or caucus were held today in their states, 18 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents would vote for Palin, second to Romney’s 26 percent. With Palin in the field, Bachmann is at 12 percent.

Palin tops the list as the most empathetic figure. She runs almost even with Romney on the question of who best reflects the party’s core values and on who is most compatible with people on the issues.

Palin also has a strong constituency among Republicans without college degrees. On the horse race question, Palin scores 23 percent and Romney 22 percent among non-college Republicans, and Romney leads 32 to 9 percent among college graduates. Palin is also first or tied for the top spot in both groups when it comes to her connection to people’s problems.

Above all, it is this “connection factor” that would allow Palin to quickly transform the race were she to jump in. Four years ago at this time, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee scored in double figures in only two areas in Post-ABC Iowa polls: empathy and honesty. He parlayed his August straw poll win in Ames to leads on both fronts by November before surging ahead of the pack in December and winning the Iowa caucuses in January.

Bachmann has made an immediate splash since her entry last month. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad now calls her the front-runner in his state, whose caucuses will begin the nomination battle next year.

In this national poll, however, Bachmann’s appeal is largely limited to tea party supporters. She has little traction among other Republicans on any of the six attributes tested — leadership, empathy, experience, issues, GOP core values and electability. Palin’s appeal is more broad-based, drawing more similar numbers from the tea party contingent and others.

Strong tea party supporters make up a little more than a quarter of all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in this poll.

Perry has expressed growing interest in a possible candidacy. As the longtime governor of a big state that has produced more jobs than any other state in the country, Perry is seen by some Republicans as a potentially serious threat to Romney.

But he is far from a dominant figure in the assessment of rank-and-file Republicans. He attracts the support of 8 percent, with or without Palin in the race, and he is in single digits on all six attributes as well.

The window may be closing for Palin. More than half of all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say they are at least somewhat satisfied with the current field of candidates for the nomination, up significantly from a month ago. Bachmann’s entry, in particular, seems to have muted a clamor for more choices: Fully 69 percent of strong tea party supporters are at least somewhat satisfied with field.

One candidate who hardly registers regardless of what Perry and Palin decide to do is former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. He runs at 2 percent overall in a race without Perry. He is at 3 percent without the former Alaska governor.

Pawlenty has plenty of company, however. Among other candidates in the survey, businessman Herman Cain attracts 6 percent with the full field; former House speaker Newt Gingrich is at 5 percent; former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. is at 3 percent and former U.S. senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) is at 2 percent.

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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