It’s still too early to predict a winner in the now fully engaged contest between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination, but some newly published data help us understand exactly how close the race is and how it’s currently playing out.

For anyone who really wants to know what’s up in the GOP nomination race, I’d recommend two things: Water Shapiro’s terrific survey of who’s winning the Fox News primary, and Pollster’s continuing efforts to survey GOP party actors in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Mark Blumenthal’s survey over at Pollster of what he calls “power outsiders” is fascinating. Among these key early-state players, Romney appears to have a slight edge in electability and presidential qualities, while Perry leads by a bit on policy reliability. These Republicans are more likely to believe that Romney could beat Barack Obama and be a good president, but they are more likely to agree with Perry on the issues. But in both cases, the differences are small, and it’s impossible to know how representative Blumenthal’s respondents are.

As for Shapiro, he watched a lot of Fox News at the end of August, and found a lot of enthusiasm for Perry — but he reports that Fox initially was cautiously positive about Romney as well. What’s fascinating is that he documents how Michele Bachmann was disappeared by the GOP-aligned network; Shapiro compares it to “a Red Army general excised from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia after being purged by Joseph Stalin.”

Shapiro’s article also suggests a key question for those who want to understand the process of GOP politics right now: does Fox News function as a conduit for other party actors, or is it an independent actor itself? Does Fox essentially just transmit the views of the sorts of people who Blumenthal surveyed to rank-and-file GOP voters, or is it a competing source of influence, relatively uncontrolled by other party actors?

Most political scientists now believe that nominations are generally controlled by party actors (of both the “insider” and “outsider” variety), who coordinate and compete to determine who the party as a whole will support. There is still, however, a whole lot we don’t know about exactly how that works. All of which means that the contest between Perry and Romney is still almost completely impossible to predict at this point. It may turn on whether GOP primary voters ultimately embrace Perry on the issues, or Romney on electability. One thing is certain: It’s going to get a lot nastier out there.