By Catalina Camia, USA TODAY
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a wide lead over rival Mitt Romney in a new GOP presidential poll, and is viewed as having the best chance to defeat President Obama next year.
Just hours before eight Republicans face off tonight in another key debate, the CNN/ORC International poll shows Perry leading Romney, 30 - 18 percent. More than 4 in 10 GOP voters also say Perry is the most electable candidate, compared with 26 percent who say Romney can beat Obama.
CNN and the Tea Party Express are sponsoring tonight's debate in Tampa, the first to involve groups that back the anti-tax, small government movement. The debate begins at 8 p.m.
Perry's electability "may go a very long way toward explaining his rise in the polls, since three-quarters of all Republicans say they would prefer a candidate who can beat President Obama over one who agrees with them on major issues," CNN polling director Keating Holland says.
Perry and Romney have been engaged in a pitch battle during the past week over Social Security. At last week's debate in California, Perry doubled down on his criticism of the retirement program sticking by his assertion that it is a "Ponzi scheme" and "monstrous lie."
Romney, meanwhile, contends Perry cannot get elected "being opposed to Social Security." If Perry is the GOP presidential nominee, Romney said, "we will be obiliterated as a party."
In the CNN poll, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin comes in third with 15 percent. She has said she will say sometime by the end of September whether she'll run for president in 2012. Texas Rep. Ron Paul is next with 12 percent.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is at 4 percent in the poll, in another sign of her slide since Perry entered the race -- the same day she won the Iowa presidential straw poll.