Romney widens lead over GOP field heading into major NH debate

A new poll on Monday reaffirmed Mitt Romney's status as frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, just as the former Massachusetts governor and other candidates prepare for their first major debate. 

Nearly a quarter of Republicans — 24 percent — named Romney as their candidate of choice to face off in the 2012 presidential election against President Obama, according to a new USA Today/Gallup poll. That's a seven-point bounce for Romney since late May, when Gallup last tested Republicans' preference for a nominee.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who hasn't entered the race and has offered few clues about whether she intends to do so, checks in as the GOP's second choice. Sixteen percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they'd prefer Palin as the nominee.

The poll also reaffirmed former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain's surprising and ascendant position in the field; he placed third in the poll, drawing the support of 9 percent of Republicans.

Romney, though, is the candidate who enjoys the lead, though not a rock-solid one, heading into tonight's CNN debate in New Hampshire. The debate is the second one of the cycle, but the first in which many of the top candidates, including Romney, will appear.

The forum will provide Romney an opportunity to solidify his lead, and a chance for other candidates to make their mark.

Seven percent of Republicans said they would like to see Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) as the nominee, followed by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), each at 6 percent. Five percent named former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) or Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) as their choice. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson checks in at 2 percent, and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry each draw 1 percent.

Monday's debate will take place in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state, and the centerpiece to many candidates' paths to the nomination.

Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, enjoys an even stronger lead in the state, where he formally announced his second bid for the presidency earlier this month.

Forty-one percent of likely Granite State Republican primary voters named Romney as their choice, according to a Boston Globe poll released Sunday. That's a commanding lead over the Republican field; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) places second at 9 percent.

Rounding out the field in New Hampshire are Paul at 6 percent, Palin at 5 percent, and Bachmann and Cain at 4 percent. Huntsman, Santorum and Pawlenty are tied at 3 percent.

The Gallup poll, conducted June 8 to 11, has a 4 point margin of error. The Globe poll, conducted June 1 to 8, has a 3.2 point margin of error.