Aided by strong tea party support, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has surged in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, pushing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney into second place and significantly diminishing the once-rising star of Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Perry, who announced his candidacy three weeks ago, is now perceived by Republicans as the best candidate to beat President Obama, a distinction that Romney previously held.

The findings come on the eve of the first presidential debate for the Texas governor and just ahead of Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, which will feature proposals to create jobs and stimulate economic growth. The Republican candidates will debate on Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, one of several debates over the next few weeks that could reshape the race.

Perry is enough of an untested national campaigner — and debater — that it may take weeks to determine his staying power as a candidate. But the new poll findings foreshadow a potentially fierce competition between the two top Republicans, a contest likely to highlight ideological and demographic divisions within the party.

Among all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, Perry has edged ahead with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 22 percent, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin at 14 percent, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) with 8 percent and Bachmann at 6 percent.

Perry’s emergence has cut sharply into Bachmann’s support, putting her candidacy at risk. Her number of backers has been sliced in half, and she now scores significantly worse among those who backed her heading into last month’s big win at the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa.

Bachmann was the top vote-getter among “strong” tea party supporters in mid-July, but she has slipped to fourth place among these Republicans in the new poll. Among “very conservative” Republicans overall, her support has nearly evaporated, plunging from 21 percent to 1 percent. She has held up among GOP-leaning independents, but among rank-and-file Republicans, she has slid from 13 to 3 percent.

Palin — fresh off a widely publicized weekend speech in Iowa, followed by a trip to New Hampshire — remains a wild card. She has said that she will decide by the end of the month whether she will run.

Were Palin to stay on the sidelines, the GOP race would stay essentially the same. Perry would hold a small lead over Romney, Paul would be a distant third, and the rest would follow.

Should the race winnow to Perry vs. Romney, the contest would squarely pit the GOP’s tea party and establishment wings against each other, with tea party Republicans coming off big wins in 2010.

The survey asked Republicans to assess the candidates across a series of attributes. Palin and Perry top the list of who “best understands the problems of people like you,” with Romney not far behind. Perry leads on who is “closest to you on the issues,” followed by Romney and then Palin. Perry and Romney essentially tie on who best reflects “the core values” of the party, with Palin and Bachmann a notch below.

On expectations in a race against Obama, 30 percent say Perry is the one with the best chance of winning the general election. Twenty percent said Romney, a drop of 12 points since mid-July.

Still, the top two Republican candidates are at rough parity in how they match up against Obama. Among registered voters, Romney edges the president, 49 to 45 percent. Perry is in a similarly competitive position, at 47 percent to Obama’s 46 percent.

On the question of who is most capable of dealing with the economy, the nation’s top issue, Perry and Romney are tied, meaning that the Texas governor has neutralized a key Romney calling card.

Both candidates see their economic record as their strongest attribute. Perry has presented himself as the one with the best record on job creation, while Romney has offered himself as a business executive better equipped than career politicians such as Perry to turn around the economy.

Perry’s rise — he was in the single digits in the previous poll — has been fueled by rapidly growing support among conservative Republicans. Fully 43 percent of those who consider themselves “very conservative” support Perry; 14 percent back Romney.

Perry has a nearly 20-point edge over Romney among all conservatives, but Romney has a better than 2 to 1 advantage over Perry among moderate and liberal Republicans. A potential problem for Romney is that conservative Republicans make up a large proportion of the party.

Paul scores 13 percent among GOP-leaning independents but only 5 percent among rank-and-file Republicans — underscoring a major problem he will face in the primaries.

A Perry vs. Romney matchup is replete with examples of divisions within the party. Perry holds the advantage among men; Romney is more competitive among women. Perry has deeper support among those with household incomes under $75,000; Romney edges up among higher-income Republicans.

Romney runs even or better with Perry among those under age 50, while Perry holds the lead among those over 50. Perry runs 2 to 1 over Romney in the South. In the rest of the country, Romney is ahead, but by a significantly smaller margin.

Compounding the issues for Romney in the new poll is that fewer of his supporters now back him “strongly.” In July, 29 percent of Romney supporters were strongly behind him; now that has slipped to 15 percent. Perry does better here, but not well: 37 percent of the Texan’s voters are solidly behind him.

Following Perry’s entry, more Republicans say they are satisfied with their candidate choices. In the spring, fewer than half of Republicans said they were satisfied. That jumped up in July, and in the new poll, nearly two-thirds say they are at least somewhat satisfied.

Polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.


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