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.