A poll released Monday from the Institutes of Politics at Harvard University and St. Anselm College shows Romney at 38%, followed by Cain at 20% and Ron Paul at 13%. Tightly bunched behind them are Newt Gingrich (5%), Jon Huntsman (4%), Rick Perry (4%) and Michele Bachmann (3%).
A University of New Hampshire survey released on Friday found a similar order, but included some candidates who will not or have not yet entered the race. Romney again led at 37%, followed by Cain with 12% and Paul at 9%. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani scored at 8%, even with Huntsman; Perry and Gingrich were tied at 4%, followed by Sarah Palin at 3%. Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were at 2%.
The Cain surge is curious given that he's not visited the state since late August. Trey Grayson, director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, attributed it to the "power of earned media."
"Voters up there watch TV, watch the debates, read on the Internet," said Grayson, a Republican candidate for Senate in Kentucky in 2010. "You need organization, you need money. But you also need good earned media, and he's got that right now."
The major candidates for the GOP nomination will be in the Granite State on Tuesday for the seventh primary debate, co-hosted by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post at Dartmouth University. It's the first debate held since the field of hopefuls seems to have settled.
Given his front-runner status in the state and the debate's primary subject matter -- economic issues -- Romney may find himself both on comfortable turf and the new focal point of attacks from his rivals. Grayson said candidates eyeing the "anybody-but-Romney" vote will also pay more attention to Cain.
New Hampshire is a state where voter preference can shift in a hurry; the Harvard/St. Anselm poll found that just 10% of Romney's supporters will "definitely" support him on primary day.
"This is his firewall, and he can't let it be breached. But at the same time, it probably makes sense for someone to focus there because he's not closed the deal," Grayson said.
It was Perry with the bull's-eye on his back in previous contests, and his lackluster performance triggered a slide in national polling. As he seeks to rebound, he's taking a more aggressive approach, including a Web video on the Massachusetts healthcare reform law, linking Romney with President Obama.
Romney, meanwhile, is lining up more establishment support. On Monday, he announced endorsements from Mel Martinez, a former Florida senator and Republican National Committee chairman, and Judd Gregg, the former New Hampshire senator and governor.