WASHINGTON -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the early frontrunner among potential Republican candidates for president in 2012, according to a new poll.
While former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin commands the national spotlight, turning out Tea Party activists and headlining rallies, for now it's Romney who claims the lead at 25 percent. Palin, GOP nominee John McCain's 2008 running mate, takes second with 18 percent.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tie for third place with 16 percent. Finishing out the pack are Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty with 6 percent, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels with 4 percent and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour with 2 percent.
The survey of 815 registered voters, conducted last week, also highlights more concerns for President Barack Obama and Democrats.
On the surface, Americans are divided over whether they want Republicans to take over Congress: 48 percent say yes and 46 percent say no.
However, among voters who describe themselves as "very enthusiastic," 62 percent say they want Republicans in charge. Similarly, Republicans have the edge when those who "definitely" plan to vote are asked which party they'll vote for in their own districts.
For the first time, a majority of registered voters -- 54 percent -- said Obama has fallen short of their expectations for him as president. The figure is even more pronounced -- 59 percent -- among voters younger than 30, the very group Obama hoped to energize permanently.
The president's approval rating among registered voters is 45 percent, dragged down by those who fear that the worst of the economic crisis is still to come. Among independents, 54 percent disapprove of the job he's doing and 40 percent approve, the first time his approval rating with the group has been negative.
Just 16 percent of young voters are "very" enthusiastic about voting in November, compared with 43 percent of voters 60 and older, a group that's more likely to vote Republican. Independents are much less enthusiastic than Democrats or Republicans are, meaning partisan turnout could be key.
The Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., asked 369 Republicans or Republican-leaning independents whom they favor among seven potential primary candidates.
Palin, Gingrich and Huckabee could be canceling out some of one another's support, said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute, especially among Southern and conservative voters. Combined, they count a greater share of support than Romney does. It's also so early that name recognition is driving much of the findings.
Romney withdrew from his party's nominating contest four years ago after losing key early states and began laying the groundwork for 2012.
Voters who call themselves conservative prefer Romney to Palin. So do self-described supporters of the Tea Party movement; 25 percent prefer Romney and 19 percent Palin.
The poll found Romney's strongest appeal among college graduates and voters in Western states, while Palin did better with voters who don't have college degrees, voters younger than 30 and voters from the South. Both did well with voters from the Northeast.
Palin's weakest demographic -- and Romney's strongest -- is independent women. Just 11 percent of independent women favor Palin; 33 percent favor Romney.
Regionally, Romney is weakest in the South. For now, 15 percent of Southern Republicans and Republican-leaning independents favor Romney while 21 percent prefer Palin. Gingrich and Huckabee each has 19 percent support.
Non-college grads slightly favor Palin, with Romney close behind. College grads voice a clear preference for Romney -- 29 percent -- followed by Gingrich at 21 percent. In a potentially ominous sign for Palin, just 11 percent of Republicans and Republican- leaning independents with college degrees prefer Palin.