The bad news? Despite widespread anxiety over The One’s handling of the oil spill and a new low in Gallup’s daily approval check, he still leads all major Republican contenders head-to-head. It’s only by two or three points in the case of Huckabee and Romney, but against Gingrich, Palin, and Ron Paul, it’s more like 10.

The good news? Well, there is no good news. There’s only this:

One thing that’s very interesting about these numbers is that Ron Paul is the most popular out of the whole group with independents. They see him favorably by a 35/25 margin. The only other White House hopeful on positive ground with them is Romney at a +2 spread and they’re very negative on the rest: -5 for Huckabee, -16 for Gingrich and Palin, and -17 for Obama. All five of the possible GOP contenders lead Obama with independents, but Paul does so by the widest margin at 46-28.

It has been easy in the past to write Paul off as irrelevant but this anti-politician climate is giving his movement some steam. Paul’s going to have an interesting choice in the next year or so. If his goal is really to be President rather than to influence the national dialogue then he should probably keep on trying to win the GOP nomination, as improbable as that might be. But if he wants to guarantee himself a major role in the 2012 contest he should run as a third party candidate instead. Polling at 5-10% nationally in the general election would get his views a much wider airing than just trudging along through the Republican nomination process and hoping to get 10-15% in each primary.

Note: “Moderates” aren’t equivalent to “independents.” Among moderates, Paul’s favorables are 20/38, which is actually among the better results for GOP candidates. (Palin’s net among mods is -46.) Paul does brutally among Republicans, too — just 25/25, whereas every other candidate polled is no worse than net +28. (Palin is +47.) All of which makes me think that … PPP might be right, and that if tea-party fee-vah carries forward into 2011, this guy might decide to quit the party and go kamikaze on the GOP in the general by running as an independent. What’s stopping him? He’ll be 77 on Election Day 2012, so it’s not like he’d be sacrificing decades of political opportunities by bucking the GOP the way Crist did. Plus, a huge part of his schtick is that the two major parties are identical on too many issues, in which case there’s no great loss in helping Obama get re-elected by siphoning votes off from the GOP. He’ll get a spot in the debates, win 10-15 percent of the vote, and earn the undying hatred of Republicans everywhere for torpedoing their chance to knock Obama out of office. Why not go out in a blaze of glory by giving voters “a real choice”?

There’s only one reason I can think of why he might not do it: Rand. If Rand wins the general election in November, Ron may worry that GOP recriminations for ruining the party’s presidential chances might not be limited to him. Which I guess means a Paul victory in Kentucky this year is even more important than we thought. Exit question: Only 27 percent of Nikki Haley supporters and 21 percent of Carly Fiorina supporters want Palin to be the next GOP nominee? I thought those endorsements were supposed to be killer!