After a quick rise in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has experienced an almost equally dramatic decline, losing about half of his support over the past month, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Perry’s slide, which comes after several uneven performances in candidate debates, has allowed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to resurface atop the GOP field. But the most direct beneficiary of the disenchantment with Perry is businessman Herman Cain, who is now tied for second place.

Perry also faces opposition to one of his signature immigration policies in Texas, the survey shows.

His rapidly changing fortunes underscore the fluidity of the Republican race and the lingering dissatisfaction with the candidates.

That has led some major donors and party leaders to urge New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to declare his candidacy.

Christie is feverishly assessing whether to do so, with a decision expected this week. But the Post-ABC poll finds only modest public support for a Christie candidacy. About 42 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say they would like to see the New Jersey governor join the race. Thirty-four percent say no, with the rest offering no opinion.

That finding is far more positive than the receptivity to a candidacy by Sarah Palin. Two-thirds of Republicans say they do not want the former Alaska governor to seek the party’s nomination.

Although not fully satisfied with their choices, Republicans are optimistic about their chances of winning the election. More than eight in 10 say the eventual GOP nominee is likely to beat President Obama next year. In the new poll, Obama’s approval remained at a low point in his presidency.

Among announced candidates — without Christie or Palin in the race — Romney leads with 25 percent, which is identical to his support from a month ago. Perry and Cain are tied for second with 16 percent, numbers representing a 13-point drop for Perry and a 12-point rise for Cain since early September.

Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) is the only other candidate in double figures, at 11 percent. Just behind him are former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), both with 7 percent. Gingrich’s support has held steady through the late summer. Bachmann’s numbers fell sharply after Perry announced his candidacy.

Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. bring up the rear, with Santorum at 2 percent and Huntsman at 1 percent.

If Christie and Palin are included in the hypothetical matchup, he checks in at 10 percent and she at 9 percent.

Perry’s support for the Texas policy of providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants appears to be a significant problem in the GOP race. About two-thirds of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who backs such a policy. Among tea party supporters, nearly eight in 10 say this position is a negative factor.

The falloff for Perry against other announced candidates has been particularly steep among those aligned with the tea party movement. In early September, Perry had a 3-to-1 advantage over any other candidate among those “strongly” backing the tea party, but his supported has plummeted from 45 percent to 10 percent in this group.

Among all conservatives, Perry’s support has been sliced in half, from 39 to 19 percent. Some of his decline may stem from shaky debate showings: A majority of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who have watched recent debates say the more they hear about Perry, the less they like him.

Cain picks up where Perry has faded.

Seventy percent of those who saw the debates say the more they learn about Cain, the more they like him. Among tea party supporters, Cain’s support has surged from 5 percent to 30 percent in a month. The businessman, who scored a surprise win at the Florida straw poll, now has the edge among solid tea partyers.

Tea party Republicans are also enormously confident a Republican will prevail next year, regardless of who the nominee may be: 91 percent of strong tea party backers sense a GOP victory over Obama in 2012. Whether it is the battered economy or the president’s sliding ratings, Republicans overall are far more likely than Democrats to see victory ahead in the general election, 83 percent to 58 percent.

When Republicans were asked to evaluate Romney against Perry directly, they split about evenly on five issues, with the former Massachusetts governor holding slight edges on several, including issue No. 1: the economy. Perry counters with a slim seven-point edge on health care, perhaps a sign of continuing discomfort with Romney’s support for the Massachusetts law that requires every individual to buy health coverage and was considered a model for the national plan signed into law by Obama.

Romney, Perry and all other announced candidates have said they would move to repeal Obama’s health-care law, something that two-thirds of Republicans and GOP-leaners say would make them more apt to support a candidate.

Romney has big – 20-point – advantages over Perry on two important questions: experience and electability. When asked who has the better experience to be president, Romney wins 50 to 30 percent.

A month ago, Perry appeared to have neutralized what had been a clear Romney advantage: a perception that he is the best positioned to defeat Obama in 2012. Now, 51 percent of Republicans say Romney has a better shot at winning than does Perry; 31 percent say so of Perry.

The new poll may in some ways bolster Republican hopefulness in general.

Obama’s approval rating — while not significantly different from a month ago — is at a new career low, his disapproval number at a new high. In all, 42 percent approve of the job he is doing, while 54 percent disapprove. Barely more than a third of independents give the president positive marks, as 60 percent now disapprove, a new high. For the first time, fewer than half of moderates approve of the way Obama is handling his job.

Of course, the president won’t have to run against a theoretical Republican. Among registered voters, he runs neck and neck with Romney, Perry and Christie. The president has a narrow edge on Perry among all adults. Cain was not tested in a hypothetical contest against Obama.

The telephone poll was conducted Sept. 29 to Oct. 2 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points; it is six points for the sample of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents.


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