Republicans got an early Christmas present on Friday with the release of a new American Research Group poll showing incumbent Republican Sen. John Sununu (N.H.) leading former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in his quest for reelection next November.

The ARG poll, released over the weekend, shows Sununu leading Shaheen by 11 points and, more important, drawing support from more than 50 percent of those polled. The numbers: Sununu 52 … Shaheen 41 … 7 percent undecided.

This is the first public poll showing Sununu in the lead, though a number of polls taken over the last few months have thrown into question the early common wisdom listing Sununu as one of the two or three most vulnerable Republican senators as 2008 approaches. In fact, six months ago, most Washington-based analysts were wont to list him as a “goner.” Poll data from New Hampshire showed him trailing Shaheen by as much as 20 points, and he was listed in rundown after rundown as a probable loser.

Those assessments, however, failed to reflect either the quality of representation Sununu has provided New Hampshire or the independence of New Hampshire voters in grading those they send to Washington.

The fact is that Sununu is one of the brightest conservatives in the Senate as well as a man of great political courage. He has never, to my knowledge, let partisanship or politics trump principle — as he demonstrated in opposing the Medicare Drug Benefit and reauthorization of a flawed Patriot Act. Not all Republicans or conservatives agreed with him in either case, but he stood by his guns regardless of what they or a then-popular Republican president had to say.

It would be a shame to lose Sununu, and it now appears that while November of 2008 is a long way off, we may not have to.

Keene is chairman of The American Conservative Union, whose website can be accessed here.