Poll: Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin Leading 2012 GOP Field

Romney gained big by Huckabee and Trump dropping out of the race.

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Though he hasn't formally announced his candidacy, Mitt Romney has become the clear frontrunner in the Republican race to defeat President Barack Obama in 2012, according to a Suffolk University poll released Wednesday. The former Massachusetts governor appears to have benefited the most from Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump dropping out in recent days, but his leading man status also poses significant challenges to his campaign. The question is whether he can keep this early momentum.

[See a slide show of who's in and who's out in the GOP 2012 primary.]

Romney lead the GOP pack even before Huckabee and Trump exited the race, with 17 percent of likely Republican voters backing him. After Trump's no-go announcement Monday, Suffolk pollsters asked the would be Huckabee and Trump supporters surveyed which candidate they would pick instead. Most selected Romney, and the rest either chose Sarah Palin or were undecided, says David Paleologos , director of the Political Research Center at Boston's Suffolk University. After the field change up this week, 20 percent of likely GOP voters support Romney, while 12 percent back Palin (who originally polled in at 10 percent). "Really what this shows is that people are rotating to the very candidates they know best or poses the biggest problems for Barack Obama," says Paleologos.

Newt Gingrich garnered 9 percent, followed by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (7 percent), Texas Rep. Ron Paul (5 percent) and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels each receiving 4 percent. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty clocked in with 3 percent support among like GOP voters, as did socially conservative former Sen. Rick Santorum. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, one of the few candidates who has formally declared a White House bid, and former Utah governor and recent ambassador to China Jon Huntsman each received less than 1 percent support from their likely voting bloc. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is reportedly testing the GOP waters now that Huckabee is out, was not included in the survey.

[Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

Romney's lead may prove problematic. "I think having been through the 2008 primaries and having seen Hillary Clinton miles ahead of everybody, it's a tough place to be," says Paleologos. "So many things that can happen to a frontrunner. It becomes self perpetuating prophecy. It effects your decisions, makes you more complacent, cautious."

Paleologos finds that Romney doesn't poll well in the South, where "Huckabee's absence has created a huge void" and where national healthcare, which could be Romney's Achilles heel--he signed Massachusetts' statewide healthcare plan into law five years ago--is unpopular. Southern voters may be waiting for someone familiar like Perry to swoop in.

Still, there is time for aggressive meet and greets with voters and to inspire the grassroots. Romney "does have the ability to grow further because over a quarter of people haven't decided on him yet," says Paleologos. "He has the potential to introduce himself to them." Some lesser knowns like Daniels and Pawlenty could also have similar growth potential.

The key for Romney's opponents at this stage in the game will be whether "they can frame him before he frames himself," says Paleologos. Romney's popularity in this poll is "both a blessing and a curse."