ORLANDO — Whether it's in a crowded field or one-on-one, Rick Perry is the man to beat in the Republican Party's race for the White House, a new poll shows.
The Texas governor leads rival Mitt Romney by 9 percentage points in the crowded race for president, according to the survey from Quinnipiac University that also found Perry would best Romney if Sarah Palin hopped in the race or if the contest was a simple head-to-head matchup. The other seven candidates poll in the single digits.
The poll also suggests Romney won't get much political mileage out of attacking Perry for calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme." More than half of Republicans — the only ones who can vote in the upcoming winter primary — say it's fair to describe the entitlement program that way.
Perry's comments, though, could prove more problematic in a general election race, with 58 percent of all voters saying the comment comparing Social Security to a criminal-funding swindle is unfair. Also, voters in Florida — where more than half of the electorate is older than 60 — aren't sure if he wants to end or fix Social Security, which they don't want changed.
Romney's relative weakness in the eyes of Republican voters — that is, his perceived moderation — would be a strength in a matchup against President Barack Obama, whom the former Massachusetts governor bests by a 47-40 percent spread, thanks to the support of independent voters.
Perry is statistically tied with Obama, who earned his lowest job approval rating ever in a Quinnipiac poll. Only 39 percent approve of the way Obama is doing his job, while 57 percent disapprove. More than half of voters say Obama does not deserve a second term. Only 41 percent say he should be re-elected.
"Gov. Rick Perry has the lead — and the momentum — among Florida Republicans, while former Gov. Mitt Romney can point to a better general election showing," Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in a written statement.
Romney's numbers have remained stagnant since August. Meanwhile, Perry has surged 18 percentage points to his current 31 percent without Palin in the race.