CNN/TIME Poll: Romney Leads Republican Rivals in First Four Primary States

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Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the Fairfax County Republican Committee headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, Oct. 26, 2011.

With less than three months before voting begins for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is outpacing the GOP field in the first four primary states, according to a new CNN/TIME/ORC poll. Former pizza magnate Herman Cain is running second in each pivotal early battleground.

Romney boasts double-digit leads over his Republican rivals in both New Hampshire and Florida. In New Hampshire, the former Massachusetts governor collects a commanding 40% of the vote from registered Republicans and independents who cast a ballot in the 2008 GOP primary, lapping Cain’s 13% and Texas congressman Ron Paul’s 12%. Romney has the support of 30% of registered Republicans in the Sunshine State, a comfortable lead over Cain’s 18% and the 9% captured by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Among the more socially conservative Republican voters of Iowa and South Carolina, Romney’s edge is slimmer. Despite scarcely venturing to the nation’s first caucus state, Romney leads with 24% of registered Republicans in Iowa, a three-point edge over Cain’s 21% and within the margin of error. He’s in a 25% to 23% statistical tie with the former Godfather’s Pizza boss among GOP voters and independents who skew Republican in South Carolina. In both states, Paul sits in third place with 12% of the vote.

Romney’s support ebbs and swells among different demographic groups, but stays relatively sturdy across the board. As expected, he is particularly strong among self-identified “moderate or liberal” Republicans, tallying more than three times that of the next-best candidate among these voters in Florida and New Hampshire. But even among groups who have railed at him for bucking conservative orthodoxy, Romney polls well. He holds a 20-point lead over Cain among New Hampshire Tea Partyers, ties Cain with 26% of the movement’s support in Florida, and sits second among these Republicans in Iowa and South Carolina.

While Romney’s strengths highlight his early advantage over a fractured field, he remains a fragile front-runner.

With the exception of New Hampshire, a redoubt where Romney keeps a home, the former Massachusetts governor’s lead looks tenuous. More than 70% of Iowa Republicans who identified a first-choice candidate said their selection was subject to change, as did nearly two-thirds of the Republican-voting respondents in Florida and South Carolina. The shaky support suggests Romney would be vulnerable to a challenge from a rival able to coax conservatives to coalesce around their candidacy.

Who that might be remains uncertain. After a brief surge that saw him leap to the top of a series of polls in Iowa and South Carolina, Cain’s support has faltered amid added scrutiny, as rivals probe for holes in his ubiquitous 9-9-9 economic plan and attack his stance on abortion. While Gingrich has enjoyed a mild bump and Paul scores in the 10% range across the board, neither seems within striking distance in any of the first four states. Michele Bachmann has tumbled to sixth place in Iowa, on whose caucuses she’s staking her entire campaign, and Perry’s numbers continue to sink well into second-tier territory in the wake of weak debate performances. His team is hoping to reverse that trend by airing new TV aids in Iowa, where Perry is mired in a tie for fourth. But should Romney escape with a surprise victory in the Hawkeye State followed by a win in New Hampshire, he could suck the suspense from the race quickly.

The poll, conducted from Oct. 20-25, surveyed 401 registered Republican voters in Florida and 405 registered Republicans in Iowa. In South Carolina, which has no party registration, the poll surveyed 400 registered voters who identified themselves as Republicans or independents who lean Republican. In New Hampshire, which has an open primary, the poll surveyed 211 registered Republican voters and 189 registered independents who voted in the 2008 Republican presidential primary. In each state, the poll’s margin of error is 5%.