CNN poll: Romney leads in ... all four early states; Update: Cain leads Romney in national Fox News poll

Even an eeyore like me wasn’t prepared for the sheer despair generated by these numbers. Bad enough to nominate Romney by default after the rest of the field flames out, but … to let him run the table? Says Philip Klein, “[T]ogether, the candidates are uninspiring, unserious, unprepared, dishonest, unreliable, inexperienced, inconsistent or ideologically malleable. Not one of them seems up to the task at hand.” True — but surely there’s one Not Romney in the bunch who’s sufficiently up to the task to win one state. Isn’t there?

Serious question: If the architect of RomneyCare and Great Centrist Hope runs the table, what’s left of the tea party as a national political movement? It’s one thing to say, “You can’t beat a well-funded, well-organized establishment candidate in a long race,” but you should be able to beat them somewhere. If you can’t, what’s left?

In Iowa, which will hold its caucuses on January 3 and is traditionally the first state to vote in the race for the nomination, 24% of registered Republicans say they are backing Romney, who’s making his second bid for the presidency, with Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and radio talk show host, at 21%. Romney’s three point margin is within the survey’s sampling error…

It’s a dead heat in South Carolina, which will hold its primary on Jan. 21 and traditionally is the first southern state to vote along the road to the White House. According to the poll in the Palmetto State, Romney has the support of 25% of self-identified Republicans or independents who lean towards the GOP, with Cain at 23%. Romney’s two-point margin is well within the survey’s sampling error…

Florida will hold its primary on January 31, voting fourth in the primary and caucus calendar. According to the poll, three out of ten Republicans say they back Romney, with Cain at 18%. Gingrich and Perry each grab 9% support, with Paul at 6%, Bachmann at 4%, and Huntsman and Santorum at 1%.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, he leads by 27. Granted, that’s the only one of the four where his lead is commanding, and granted, only a third or so of voters in each state say that their minds are made up, so there’s still lots of room for movement. But consider two things. One: This could be a sign that the Cain surge is starting to fade. I think he’ll be in the top tier for the rest of the race, but being top-tier and actually winning primaries are two different things. The last few polls out of Iowa had Cain ahead by anywhere from seven to 10 points; now suddenly he’s down to 21 percent again. (His numbers have dropped in South Carolina too.) Maybe last week’s abortion and Gitmo gaffes have finally started to bite. Two: The best Perry does in any of these states is 11 percent in South Carolina, which was supposed to be his southern stronghold. He’s fourth there, trailing Romney, Cain, and Ron Paul, with Gingrich just three points behind him. The closest he gets to second place in any of these is … nine points. If I’m right about Cain sticking around the top tier and if, as expected, Gingrich continues to impress at debates, there’s no way to avoid a deep split among the Not Romney vote. How does Perry manage that?

Here’s Huntsman, who tops out at six percent in New Hampshire and one percent everywhere else, dumping on Romney for “leading from behind.” Counterintuitive exit question: Is there a silver lining for Romney critics insofar as the Iowa numbers might force him to compete there? His nightmare scenario is thinking he can stun the field by winning Iowa, pouring in lots of money to make it happen, and then finishing a crushingly disappointing second behind some grassroots darling like Cain. (It’s happened before, you might remember.) He might not be able to resist gambling on it if the polls keep up like this.

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Update: Good news for Cainiacs: The Cain Train hasn’t been derailed yet. The bad news? National polls don’t matter compared to state polls. They’re fun as a proxy for popular support, but if Romney wins Iowa on January 3, the race is over no matter what his national numbers are that day.

A Fox News poll released Wednesday shows support for Cain has quadrupled among GOP primary voters since late August. At that time, he stood at 6 percent. After three September debates, he jumped to 17 percent. And now Cain leads the pack at 24 percent.

While it’s the first time Romney has trailed Cain, it’s the second time he’s been ousted from the lead since July. Romney receives 20 percent — a new low for him. That’s down from 23 percent last month and a high of 26 percent in early August.

Newt Gingrich now comes in third with 12 percent — edging out Rick Perry. The former speaker — like Cain — has seen his support quadruple since late August.

Perry’s support has dropped to 10 percent, down from 19 percent in September.

That flat-tax idea had better catch on quick-like. Especially since Cain just landed the most coveted endorsement of all.