Despite all of the handwringing over Rick Perry’s response on Social Security, a new CNN poll shows him maintaining a double-digit lead over Mitt Romney.  Not only does Perry lead 30-18, but his electability numbers haven’t declined since defending his earlier “Ponzi scheme” remarks.  In fact, his electability quotient has risen since the last debate (via Gabriel Malor at AoSHQ):

The survey, released Monday morning, indicates that 30 percent of Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP support Perry for their party’s nomination, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 18 percent. Romney, who’s making his second bid for the White House, had been leading the list of Republican candidates in the national polls, but since Perry launched his campaign a month ago he’s jumped ahead of Romney to capture the top spot. …

“Perry doesn’t simply have the most support in a hypothetical ballot – he also tops the list of GOP candidates on every personal quality tested,” adds Holland.

Thirty-six percent, for example, see him as the strongest leader in the field, with Romney second at 21 percent. According to the poll, 35 percent say Perry is the Republican candidate most likely to get the economy moving again, with Romney in second at 26 percent.

Nearly three in ten say that Perry is the candidate who is most likely to fight for his beliefs, with Palin in second place at 23 percent and, significantly, Romney in a distant tie for fourth at just 11 percent.

But Perry’s biggest strength may be the electability factor, with 42 percent saying he has the best chance of beating Obama next year. Some 26 percent say Romney has the best chance of defeating the president.

This poll also shows Bachmann dropping far into the second tier, with only 4% supporting her.  Palin comes in third at 15%, but taking Palin out doesn’t help Bachmann much; she only picks up 3 points to 7%.  Romney adds the same to his support without Palin, while Perry adds two points.

More to the point, Perry leads the enthusiasm race, with 35% pronouncing themselves “enthusiastic” if Perry won the nomination.  Only 27% would feel the same way about Romney, and 23% about Palin.  Romney wins the “pleased but not enthusiastic” category with 49%, but Perry gets 42% here as well , while Bachmann scores 17% and 40%, respectively.  When it comes to identifying which candidate agrees with voters the most, Perry has a 9-point lead over Palin, 26/17, with Romney barely edging Ron Paul for third place, 15/14.  Bachmann comes in at 8% and fifth place.

Perry wins in other key categories as well.  He outscores Romney by 15 points on leadership, 36% to 21%, with Palin third at 14%.  Perry also edges Palin on likeability, 25/22, with Romney a close third at 21%.  But as CNN notes, Perry creams Romney on electability against Obama by 42/26, easily outperforming his support at this moment.  No one else is in double digits; Palin gets 7%, while the rest of the field comes in at 5% or less.

If Romney and Bachmann think that by attacking Perry on Social Security they can make a case for leadership in an era of reform, well, they could be right — but they may find their Social-Security-is-OK argument backfiring with an electorate that has clearly awoken to the fiscal trainwreck coming from entitlement programs.  If Perry can successfully offer a framework for real reform in Social Security in this debate, he may wind up in control of the race.  I’ll have more on that later today.

Update: Byron York notices that older voters seem to appreciate some blunt talk about Social Security, too:

In a new CNN poll that finds Perry at the front of the Republican pack, the Texas governor’s lead among GOP voters age 65 and older is actually bigger than his lead among younger voters. Fifty-two percent of respondents over 65 say Perry is their choice for president, versus just 21 percent who choose Romney.  In the overall numbers, Perry leads Romney 32 percent to 21 percent, with Ron Paul following at 13 percent, Bachmann and Gingrich at seven percent each, Herman Cain at six percent, and Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum at two percent each.

Republican voters over 65 also believe Perry has the best chance of defeating President Obama in next year’s general election.  Perry leads Romney 58 percent to 22 percent among older voters on that question.

Breaking down the age results in different categories, Perry leads Romney by 24 percent to 19 percent among GOP voters under 50.  Among GOP voters 50 and older, Perry leads Romney by 41 percent to 22 percent.

When asked to choose between leadership and pandering, most people will choose leadership.