If Texas had already settled its legislative redistricting issues, it would play an important part in the Republican presidential primary process.  With their redistricting tied up in court, however, Texas has had to move its primary from Super Tuesday in March to late May or early June.  That’s bad news for Rick Santorum, who has a crushing lead at the moment in a new statewide poll from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune:

Santorum would get the votes of 45 percent of the respondents if the election were held today, according to the survey. The other three candidates in the GOP race — former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — are clustered well behind. Gingrich got 18 percent, Romney received 16 percent and Paul garnered 14 percent.

The presidential race in Texas remains highly volatile, and the numbers could change significantly between now and the state’s primaries. They were originally scheduled for March 6 — early voting would have started this week — but have been delayed by redistricting litigation. Texas still doesn’t have all of its congressional and legislative maps in place, and May 29 appears to be the earliest possible primary date.

If the maps are further delayed, the primaries could slide into June. Either way, the other candidates have time to try to catch the front-runner, and the delays move the focus and some electoral clout from Texas to other states that will vote sooner.

“Rick Santorum has cut through the clutter and emerged as not simply the non-Romney candidate, but as the most credible conservative candidate in the race,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the UT/TT poll and a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. “He hasn’t totally clinched that, but Santorum has gone from a guy who couldn’t get two minutes in a debate to being a guy who looks like the front-runner — not just in Texas, but maybe nationally.”

At least according to Gallup’s tracking poll, Santorum has become the national frontrunner.  Yesterday’s iteration put him eight points above Mitt Romney, 36/28, in their five-day rolling average.  That was a gain of two points in the gap from the previous day, which suggests that Santorum’s emphasis on fighting Obama over the HHS mandate has not hurt him among Republican voters at all.

In Texas, Santorum also has made the case for his electability, the most important aspect of the primary for 45% of the likely primary voters in the survey.  Among likely general-election voters in Texas, Santorum has the widest margin of victory over Barack Obama and the only one to win a majority, 51/37.  Romney comes close at 49/36, as does Newt Gingrich (49/38).  Native Texan Ron Paul only gets a 44/35 spread over Obama.  The partisan D/R/I split in this poll is 35/33/29, for those keeping score.

Santorum’s edge comes from his personal standing with the electorate.  He gets the highest favorability rating in the poll with a 42/31 split (14% neither favorable or unfavorable).  Romney is underwater at 37/48, as is Gingrich at 33/49 and Paul at 30/41.  (Obama gets a 40/55 favorability rating and a 39/55 job approval rating.)  Those ratings make it difficult for Santorum’s competitors to gain traction against him unless Santorum ends up getting eliminated before Texas gets a chance to hold its primaries.

As noted, though, Texas matters very little at the moment.  As a gauge of how the race is going, it’s certainly a good data point, but Santorum won’t get a crack at these delegates unless he’s around at the very end.  Mitt Romney should hope that the fight over the redistricting in Texas will play a very big role in this nomination process.

Update: I meant to write that “Santorum’s emphasis on fighting Obama over the HHS mandate has not hurt him among Republican voters at all,” but left out the word not, which was, er … an important word in that sentence. I’ve fixed it, and sorry for the confusion.

Update II: Oklahoma will vote in the March 6th Super Tuesday contests, and it looks as though Santorum will win handily there, too:

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum has surged to the front among Oklahoma’s Republican voters, according to a SoonerPoll.com survey released Sunday.

Santorum was the first choice of 39 percent of the 278 likely voters who said they planned to participate in the March 6 state GOP primary.

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, first in a survey conducted last fall, dropped to third, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who remained second.

Romney, generally considered the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, was at 23 percent, followed by Gingrich at 18.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was at 8 percent, and 13 percent were undecided.

That’s a pretty small sample, although not so small as to be discarded entirely.  I’d like to see something with a 500-respondent or so sample to see how well it lines up with this poll.