Romney, seen as most electable, still struggles to break out of pack, poll shows

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has a significant advantage over his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in only one area — electability — and will approach the next round of candidate debates with several potential liabilities, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Often described as the candidate to beat in the GOP race, Romney remains stuck in place in national polls — he is at 24 percent in the Post-ABC survey — despite the fact that one of his main challengers, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has stumbled and several high-profile potential candidates decided not to enter the race to challenge President Obama.

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See how the primaries are unfolding: An interactive graphic that tracks which candidates are visiting the early states and where they focusing their energy.
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See how the primaries are unfolding: An interactive graphic that tracks which candidates are visiting the early states and where they focusing their energy.

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Washington Post-ABC News Poll: Voters weigh in on Romney’s views and how they think he stacks up against Cain.
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Washington Post-ABC News Poll: Voters weigh in on Romney’s views and how they think he stacks up against Cain.

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Romney’s lack of traction carries well beyond the head-to-head matchups with other competitors. It also is reflected on discrete issues and candidate attributes. Considerable numbers of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents consider the health plan that Romney signed into law in Massachusetts and his Mormon religion as strikes against him.

The survey tested the candidates on six attributes or characteristics. Romney has a sizable lead in just one: One-third of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say he has the best chance of anyone in the field to defeat Obama in 2012. Running second on that question is businessman Herman Cain. About one-fifth say Cain would be the party’s strongest candidate.

The poll was conducted Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, starting just after reports surfaced of sexual-harassment allegations against Cain, who runs neck and neck with Romney with 23 percent overall.

Some Republican leaders think that primary and caucus voters will be looking for the most electable candidate, which would play to Romney’s one clear advantage. But a Post-ABC News poll in October found that more than seven in 10 Republicans said it was more important to support a candidate who shares their views on the issues rather than one who is considered most likely to win next November.

In the other five areas tested in the new survey, Romney shows no greater strength than other GOP contenders. On empathy, 21 percent say Cain is the one who best understands their problems, compared with Romney’s 17 percent. On honesty, it’s Cain at 22 percent, Romney at 17 percent. The two also run closely on the economy and issues generally, while Newt Gingrich rivals Romney on upholding core Republican values.

The Post-ABC survey highlights the divide within the party between the most conservative Republicans and all others. Romney’s candidacy will be directly affected by the composition of the primary and caucus electorates. The more conservative the electorate, the more challenged he could be.

In data released Friday, Cain leads Romney 2-to-1 (30 percent to 15 percent) among those who describe themselves as very conservative. These Republicans were the least likely to rank Romney higher than his rivals on the attributes tested in the survey.

They also were the most likely to resist the former Massachusetts governor because he helped put into place a state law requiring people to have health insurance or because of his religion.

Nearly half of all of the Republicans polled say they are less likely to support Romney because of his work on health care, and the number peaks at 55 percent among the most conservative. Overall, 20 percent are less likely to vote for him because of his religion, but that rises to 32 percent among those who are very conservative.

Still, for all his evident vulnerabilities, Romney is in better shape than any other contender for the nomination. He is the first or second choice of more than four in 10, higher than any other candidate. Without Cain in the race, Romney would be at 31 percent, potentially enough to win crowded early-state primaries or caucuses.

Only 9 percent say they are “very satisfied” with their choices for the Republican nomination, a number that has been low all year and a major contributor to volatility in the contest, as well as another anchor on Romney. And although few Republicans are committed to backing Romney — seven in 10 of his supporters say they could change their minds — there is similarly soft support for his main competitors.

Four years ago, Obama struggled to break into the 30s in national primary polling against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). That is, until he won Iowa and dramatically shifted the nomination fight. A big win in Iowa — Romney and Cain together sit atop recent polls there — followed by an expected victory in New Hampshire would put Romney in a commanding position.

He will return to Iowa on Monday, but he has not fully committed to an all-out effort to win there

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

 
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