With most of the nation distracted by the tragedy in Tucson and the political attacks over it, news on the GOP presidential campaign front from Gallup and Politico have slipped mainly under the radar.  Both show former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in good position in the early going to lay claim to frontrunner status as the nomination cycle begins, both in Iowa and across the country.  In a poll of Republican voters who cast ballots in the 2010 midterm elections in Iowa, Huckabee leads a large field by five points over Mitt Romney (24/19), who surpasses Huckabee when it comes to second-choice voters.  Palin comes in third in first-choice responses with 11%:

Right now, a quarter of voters are undecided and that number beats any other candidate.  Huckabee and Romney are clearly the top two contenders and Romney, despite being in second, has a more motivated voter and ultimately would probably edge out Huckabee if the caucus were today with Palin a strong third.

Gingrich and Paul have good favorables, but both have a fatigue level that’s stopping them from converting those favorables into votes.  On this measure, both men run behind Pawlenty and Pence, who have made apositive first impression on the state.  With Pence heavily rumored to be considering a run for Indiana Governor, Pawlenty is the man to watch here and could be a sleeper.

Of the other candidates, Thune seemed to have the most on the ball. Bachmann could be dangerous if she is serious about the campaign and is taken seriously as a candidate (her support seemed to come from Huckabee in particular and also Palin, but these are small numbers and it’s difficult to draw a conclusion).  Neither Cain, who has visited the state repeatedly, Barbour, who mailed Iowa last year nor Santorum, who has also visited Iowa often, is gaining much traction.  Johnson is a non-entity and got no first, second or third choice votes.

The first and second choice questions are important in the caucus procedure, especially for those whose first choice is a lower-ranking candidate.  The second-choice measure favors Romney.  Palin comes in third again in this measure, with Pawlenty moving up considerably:

When it comes to first and second choices, Romney converts 56 percent of his favorables followed by Huckabee at 51 percent, Palin at 46 percent, Pawlenty at 37 percent, Gingrich at 36 percent, Pence at 33 percent, Thune at 28 percent, Cain at 22 percent, Paul at 21 percent, Bachmann at 19 percent, Barbour at 16 percent and Santorum at 9 percent.

Gallup also shows Huckabee leading in favorability nationwide, with Palin having the most recognition:

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has the highest net favorable score among Republicans nationwide in a field of potential GOP candidates for 2012, while former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is the most recognized. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are also widely recognized by Republicans, and have favorability numbers similar to Palin’s. …

Overall, Huckabee (+30) has the highest net favorable score — strongly favorable responses minus strongly unfavorable responses among those who recognize him — of any of these 13 potential candidates. Palin has a relatively high percentage of strongly favorable opinions among those who recognize her, at 30%, but also the highest strongly unfavorable opinions of any candidates included in the research (8%), for a net favorable score of 22. Gingrich (24) and Romney (23) have net favorable scores similar to Palin’s. All but one of the remaining candidates have net favorable scores from 11 to 19, with Pence and Huntsman at the top end of that range, and Daniels at the lower end. Johnson, who has the lowest name identification score among Republicans, also has the lowest net favorable score, at 0.

In this instance, it would be better to be less known, which would give candidates a chance to increase favorability on first impressions.  Palin will need to change minds to get a boost above the other nationally-known candidates.   Mitch Daniels has the most upside in this poll among generally-considered major contenders for the nomination, with only a 26% recognition rate and an 11% net favorability, by that measure.

It is, of course, a long way off, and we’re still not sure whether Palin wants to run for office at all.  These numbers show that if she does, Huckabee and Romney will start off as her major competition in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and that the competition may be formidable.

However, I’m curious why no one is including Rick Perry in these polls yet, who is just as likely as John Thune to be running for the top spot.

Update: Fixed the Politico link.