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's 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.
Quinnipiac's polls of the Florida race show a tale of two candidates when it comes to Romney and Perry.
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.
The new Quinnipiac survey was released in anticipation of Thursday night's debate that kicks off the Republican Party of Florida's Presidency 5 event, which ends Saturday with a straw poll.
The Quinnipiac poll differs from a survey released Wednesday from a Gainesville-based firm, War Room Logistics, that found likely Republican voters were evenly split between Perry and Romney, who also appeared to be a better general-election candidate in a race against Obama.
The key difference between the two polls: War Room Logistics surveyed likely voters while Quinnipiac surveyed registered voters — a more common polling technique months before an election.
As voters focus on the Republican primary and Obama's job-performance, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has quietly remained in decent shape, according to the Quinnipiac poll. Unlike Obama, a plurality of Florida voters say Nelson deserves a third term, and he'd beat an unnamed Republican challenger by a 43-34 percent spread.
Who will that challenger be? It's unclear.
Nearly 60 percent of GOP voters are undecided. Right now, former Sen. George LeMieux leads the pack with 17 percent, followed by Mike McCalister (11 percent) and Adam Hasner and Craig Miller, who are stuck at 5 percent.
Regardless of whom Nelson or Obama face in the general election, they have a big problem on their hands when it comes to motivating Democratic voters. They're just not as excited as Republicans. About 63 percent of Republicans said they're more enthusiastic about voting, compared to only 28 percent of Democrats.
A recent nationwide poll from Gallup also showed a so-called "enthusiasm gap" between the parties.
Obama has started to gun up his base by proposing a jobs bill and deficit-reduction plan that call for cutting middle-class and business taxes while raising taxes on wealthier Americans. Obama and his party have also gone on the offense against Republicans for wanting to reform Social Security and Medicare.
The Quinnipiac poll suggests there's good political mileage in talking about Social Security.
About 38 percent of voters say they'd be less willing to back a candidate who proposes changing the program for future retirees. Only 20 percent say they'd be more likely to back a candidate with those plans.
About 65 percent of voters say Social Security should be run by the federal government and only 25 percent say it should be turned over to the states, as Perry has suggested. And voters are split 35-37 percent on whether Perry wants to fix Social Security or end it.
More than two-thirds of voters oppose reducing benefits for future retirees, while just 27 percent favor the idea. Slightly more than half of voters oppose raising the retirement age or increasing taxes to help shore up Social Security.
The only proposal to shore up Social Security that seems popular: allowing Social Security taxes to be applied to incomes about the current cap of $106,800. That idea is favored by 65 percent and opposed by 28 percent.