Coming out of the July 4th weekend, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the clear front-runner in the crowded Republican field of White House hopefuls — though history suggests the early lead in the polls won't necessarily make him a shoo-in at the ballot box.
Polling this far out from the first vote being cast can be a shaky barometer for who will emerge victorious from the grueling primary process. Just ask former House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — each of whom sprinted out to leads in early polls, only to gas out in the stretch run of the primary contest.
"Primary polling the summer before a national election has very little value in terms of predicting the ultimate nominee," said Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports polling. "They measure name recognition but tell us little of how the candidates will perform on the campaign trail or handle the spotlight. They also tell us nothing of how voter opinions will shift as the candidates become better known."
Mr. Romney, though, knows full well that early-inning polls and surveys shouldn't be treated like a crystal ball.
In 2007, he topped New Hampshire and Iowa summer primary polls, but later lost the Hawkeye State to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and the Granite State to Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party's eventual nominee.
He hopes to have learned from that lesson and avoid a repeat performance this time around. The latest RealClearPolitics.com average of national polls shows him holding a double-digit lead.
His two closest rivals are former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — both of whom have yet to enter the race, a fact that underscores the wide-open nature of this nascent primary season.
"Don't mistake the starting point with where this might end up," said David Winston, a GOP pollster. "Were still in the personality phase of this campaign, where people are laying out their bios, they're laying out who they are, and we havent really gotten to the candidates beginning to make those clear policy distinctions, laying out some clear contrasts."
The field grew again on Saturday after Michigan Rep. Thaddeus G. McCotter jumped into a race that already includes Mr. Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, pizza magnate Herman Cain, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Mr. Rasmussen said recent polls "do tell us something about how voters view the campaign."
"It's worth noting that a very large segment of the GOP voter pool is looking for a candidate outside the list preferred by the D.C. establishment," he said. "In other words, the GOP base may be angry at President Obama but they're not thrilled with Beltway Republicans either."
GOP voters still question Mr. Romney's commitment to gun-ownership issues and his pro-life stance, which has evolved over time and has recently been challenged by the Susan B. Anthony List. Conservatives and tea partyers also have lingering concerns over the Massachusetts health care legislation that he signed — a law that includes the individual mandate and that many GOP voters see as the precursor to President Obama's federal health care overhaul, which they loathe.
Mr. Romney now is doing what he can to erase any doubt about his front-runner status.
Hes outpaced his possible Republican rivals in fundraising, focused his message on the economy and directed his attacks at President Obama — a strategy that leaves the impression that hes gearing up more for a general election than a primary one.
With that as a backdrop, the large Republican field made appearances in different parts of the country, celebrating the holiday weekend and angling to win the hearts and minds of voters.
Mr. Romney traveled to New Hampshire on Monday, where he walked in a couple of Fourth of July parades, including one that also featured Mr. Huntsman, who spent part of his day at a backyard barbecue.
Mrs. Bachmann, who has seen her stock jump in recent polls, spent part of the weekend shaking hands in Iowa diners and strolling through a bustling farmers market as she tried to capitalize on her early popularity in the state that kicks off the presidential campaign season.
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