Rick Perry, Frontrunner

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

To the limited extent that early national polls matter in a presidential primary, here’s one that’s showing something pretty remarkable about the impact of Rick Perry’s entrance into the race: the Texas Governor has quickly become Republicans’ preferred nominee, even though a third of the party doesn’t know who he is.

Perry is now leading in national polls from Gallup, PPP and Rasmussen, all conducted after his announcement that he’s seeking the nomination. He seems to be siphoning both general election-threat votes from Romney, who’s dropped six points since July in Gallup’s data, and social conservative support from Bachmann, who’s slipped by three despite winning the Ames Straw Poll. Ron Paul’s pulling a strong 13% (+3% from July), but the rest of the field is an afterthought. Discount Iowa, and the race increasingly looks like it will exclusively be a Perry-Romney slugfest. And Gallup’s data spell trouble for Mitt.

As one would expect, Perry is mopping up among Republican Southerners and churchgoers. But he’s also almost tied with Romney in the East and is way ahead among Westerners, despite Romney’s major appeal in states like Utah and Nevada. There’s also no indication that media heat on Perry over Social Security or his crack about his wife and shirt wrinkles has done him any harm. Republican women favor Perry by almost the same margins as men, and seniors 65 and up support the Texas Governor over Romney by a whopping 40%-16%.

National polls shouldn’t be over-interpreted at this early stage. They’re mostly useful for measuring a candidate’s name recognition and the intensity of support within that context. The fact that Perry has surged so quickly despite his relative obscurity — Romney, who’s basically been running for four years, is known to 86% of the electorate while Perry, whose recognition shot up 13% after his August entrance, is now only up to 67% — indicates that his support still has potential to grow. Romney’s been characteristically reserved and non-combative since Perry hopped into the race. It’s difficult to imagine he’ll be able to keep that up if the current trend continues.