CNN released a poll this morning finding — as have other polls — that Rick Perry has surged past Mitt Romney to become the clear frontrunner in the GOP primary. Of course, it’s debatable whether that finding really matters, because it’s early days and because the primary will be fought out on a state-by-state level.

But this finding, buried in the CNN poll’s internals, really does seem significant:

Which Republican candidate do you think has the best chance of beating Barack Obama in the general election next November?

Perry 42%

Romney 26%

Palin 7%

Bachmann 5%

Gingrich 5%

Really? Nearly half of Republicans think Perry has the best chance of beating Obama?

This is a pretty serious problem for Romney, who has signaled that he intends to make Perry’s alleged unelectability in a general election central to his case against the Texas governor. The poll was taken after last week’s GOP debate, in which Perry reiterated his belief that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and that anyone promising to maintain it as is is guilty of a “monstrous lie.” The poll was also taken after Romney’s camp pounced on Perry for his Social Security comments, claiming: “No federal candidate has ever won on the Perry program to kill Social Security. Never has. never will.”

Apparently GOP voters beg to differ.

This underscores a gap between the GOP establishment and the Republican rank and file when it comes to assessing Perry’s chances in a general election. Perry’s “Ponzi scheme” crack, his book’s claim that Social Security may be unconstitutional, its support for repeal of the 16th Amendment, and his implied threat of violence towards Fed chairman Ben Bernanke (which he hasn’t repudiated) have all left GOP establishment figures openly asking whether Perry’s views and personal style will be far too toxic to the mainstream for him to get elected president. Yet despite the emergence of all of these things, GOP voters still see him as the one most likely to beat Obama. If those things weren’t enough to persuade Republicans that Perry is less electable than Romney in a general election, it’s hard to imagine what will.