Somehow, I missed this in a summary I read of a CNN poll released yesterday — probably because the summary doesn’t mention it, even though the full poll results do. Of all the candidates who are either running or still considering a run for the presidency, Sarah Palin most reminds voters of conservative hero and former President Ronald Reagan. (Well, technically, “No GOP candidate” tops the list, but Sarah Palin receives the next-highest proportion, a respectable 16 percent.) Unfortunately for Palinistas, at the moment, Palin’s not even really among those “considering a run for the presidency.”

But Palin’s popularity wasn’t the take-home lesson of the poll. As the CNN headline put it, the moral of the poll was this: Republicans want a winner.

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Sunday morning, three-quarters of Republicans and GOP leaning independent voters say they want a party nominee who can defeat President Barack Obama in 2012, even if that person doesn’t agree with them on every issue. That’s up seven percentage points from January.

Only 24 percent say that they want a candidate who agrees with them on every issue even if that person may not be able to beat Obama next year, down five points from the beginning of the year.

It’s oft-repeated that ultimate electability ought to be of first concern even in primary elections. The old Buckley rule: Pick the most conservative candidate who can win. If that’s the case, perhaps the candidates tonight should worry less about proving their conservative chops and focus instead on making a presidential impression. Articulate a clear message, defend controversial positions, but, mostly, just try to rise above the fray.

The ideological purist in me has a hard time rooting for a candidate I disagree with more than another candidate for any reason. That also makes me wish candidates would be more willing to walk into the weeds. Ultimately, I trust the presidential presence will take care of itself: As I’ve argued before, voters will naturally think of the eventual nominee as more qualified for the presidency than a squabbling contender for the nomination.

But the electability factor is certainly something to keep in mind throughout this debate, especially as one of the key factors that contributes to the ability to win is name recognition — and several candidates stand to benefit in that regard from this very first debate. (Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all come to mind.) And, of course, in the end, it all comes down to this: Whoever wins the GOP nomination would in all likelihood make a better president than Obama — and Obama’s who’ll the nominee will have to beat.