Steven Benen has a good item up this afternoon detailing Republican attacks on the candidates’ latest target: Student loans. Herman Cain the latest presidential candidate to take on the issue — he’s now saying that the federal government shouldn’t be involved at all in helping students pay for college.

It’s a perfectly reasonable issue for conservatives to support on the merits. If you believe in a smaller federal government that should stick to only those issues explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, you might well oppose any form of federal student aid.

The only problem for Republicans is that very few members of the public are that sort of conservative when push comes to shove — that is, when abstractions about big government are replaced by discussion of specific programs and policies. Especially not when it comes to education aid, which is wildly popular.

I couldn’t find a specific question about entirely ending the federal role in student loans, but what I did find was one poll question from CNN last March:

As you may know, under the current federal program to help pay for college, students get loans from banks and other financial institutions, with the government guaranteeing those loans. Would you favor or oppose a proposal to have the government provide loans to college students directly, which would increase the amount of money available for college loans?

That one wins 64-34. So the pool of voters who might be looking to get rid of student loans is capped by that answer at a third of the electorate, but presumably lots of those simply opposed increasing those loans (or, perhaps, favored keeping banks involved in the process).

The only other potentially relevant question directly about education I found was an ABC/Washington Post poll from way back in 2000, which asked: ”Do you think federal spending on education should be increased, decreased or kept about the same?” Now, that question was probably more about local public schools than about college financial aid, but nevertheless it presumably taps into any strong libertarian or federalist objections out there to any federal involvement in education at all. And the answers? A whopping 8 percent wanted education spending decreased, compared to 65 percent for an increase and 26 percent who liked the status quo.

In the same vein, in a YouGov survey earlier this year, fewer than 20% wanted to federal spending on education even when prompted by the notion that taxes would be needed to pay for that spending.

Political scientists will tell you that for the most part the fundamentals of the economy and war and peace matter the most in presidential elections. But in normal elections, that’s true at least in part because both Democrats and Republicans try to emphasize poll-tested issues on which they know that the public supports their positions. If Republicans really want to make the 2012 elections about massively unpopular positions that appeal to only a handful of ideologues and true believers…well, I’m sure Barack Obama would be happy to take them up on it.