Apparently weakened by a poor performance in the last presidential debate, Gov. Rick Perry has dropped 10 points in the latest Fox News poll, yielding his lead in the Republican presidential race to chief rival Mitt Romney.
The poll, released Wednesday night, signaled a major reshuffling in the scramble for the Republican presidential nomination, with Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, back in the lead with 23 percent.
Perry, who earlier had dethroned Romney to become the Republican front-runner, is now four points behind Romney and in second place with 19 percent. In the last poll in late August, Perry led the field with 29 percent.
The poll also further documented a stunning surge by Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, who has vaulted from the status of a back-in-the-pack candidate to become the third-leading contender, with 17 percent, only two points behind Perry. Cain, who had 6 percent in the last Fox survey, was the surprise winner of last week's Republican straw poll in Florida, an event that Perry was heavily favored to win.
Also gathering momentum was former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now in fourth place with 11 percent, an 8-point climb from the last poll. Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, though still in single digits, also advanced, from 1 percent to 4 percent.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who has attracted a loyal following with a libertarian-style message, dipped slightly, from 8 percent to 6 percent and is in fifth place.
The poll gave more bad news to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who won a mid-August Republican straw poll in Iowa and was initially seen as a potentially strong contender with heavy Tea Party support. She registered only 3 percent in the Fox poll, down from a high of 15 percent in a July survey.
Fox News said the latest results show that the still-evolving Republican primary battle is now essentially a three-way tie between Romney, Perry and Cain, whose support has nearly tripled among Republican primary voters.
Perry, who stormed into the lead after a late entry into the race in mid-August, has appealed to voters by promising to "get America working again" and by touting his record on jobs creation in Texas. But, as the front-runner, he also came under sharp attack from his rivals for his positions on Social Security, immigration and other issues.
Perry supporters acknowledged that the governor stumbled in last week's Republican debate in Florida - his third since entering the race - but have described the setback as a bump in the road that Perry will eventually overcome. But some analysts say that Florida's plans to possibly move up its primary date could cause further problems for Perry by giving him less time to overcome his earlier setbacks.
A Florida commission is expected to meet Friday to change the state's primary date to Jan. 31, ahead of traditional early contest states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Those states will likely change their dates to stay ahead of Florida, causing a major retooling of the primary and caucus calendar and forcing candidates to ramp up their campaign schedules.
-- Dave Montgomery