With barely three months to go before the first Republican presidential nominating contests, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads the GOP field in both Iowa and New Hampshire, according to new NBC News-Marist polls of these early races.
While Romney holds a commanding 30-point advantage over the nearest competition in New Hampshire, he clings to just a three-point lead over former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain in Iowa, largely due to his lack of support among the Tea Party.
"Romney has a precarious lead" in Iowa, says Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the survey. "But in New Hampshire, he has a big lead any way you slice it."
Neck and neck in Iowa
In the Hawkeye State, Romney gets the support of 23 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers — identified based on interest, chance of voting and past participation — and Cain gets 20 percent.
They are followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 11 percent, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are tied at 10 percent. Sixteen percent are undecided.
Among Tea Party supporters — who make up half of all likely Iowa caucus-goers in the poll — Cain is ahead of Romney, 31 to 15 percent. And among those who "strongly" support the Tea Party, Cain's lead is a whopping 41 to 7 percent.
"That's a group that Romney has to fear," Miringoff says.
In the Granite State, where the Republican presidential candidates gather for a debate on Tuesday night, Romney holds a significant lead.
According to the poll, he gets the support of 44 percent of likely primary voters, followed by Cain and Paul at 13 percent each, Perry at 6 percent and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 5 percent. Eleven percent say they are undecided.
The NBC-Marist polls are the latest surveys — on both the state and national levels — to show Romney ahead, Cain in second and Perry and Bachmann trying to keep up with the leaders.
The Iowa and New Hampshire polls also find that likely GOP voters are placing more emphasis on issues and values than on electability and experience.
In Iowa, 30 percent of likely caucus-goers say the most important quality that will decide their vote is that the candidate shares their values, and 29 percent say it’s the candidate’s positions on the issues.
By comparison, 20 percent say the top quality is the ability to beat President Obama in 2012, and 17 percent say it’s having the experience to govern.
The numbers are similar in New Hampshire: 30 percent say it’s the issues, 28 percent cite values, 22 percent say experience and 19 percent point to electability.
Obama struggling in both states
The NBC-Marist surveys also show that Obama is struggling in both states, which are typically battlegrounds in a general-election contest.
Just 42 percent of all registered voters in Iowa approve of Obama’s performance as president, and it’s lower in New Hampshire — with his approval rating at just 38 percent.
In hypothetical general-election matchups, Obama leads Romney by three points in Iowa, 43 to 40 percent, and he leads Perry by nine, 46 to 37 percent.
In the Granite State, however, Romney has a nine-point advantage over the sitting president, 49 to 40 percent, while Obama leads Perry by six, 46 to 40 percent.
With 13 months until the general election, Miringoff concludes that both of these states — which Obama carried in 2008 — will be competitive in 2012.
“These are two states that are in play for the general,” he says.
The Iowa survey was conducted Oct. 3-5 of 2,836 total registered voters (with a margin of error of plus-minus 1.8 percentage points) and of 371 likely GOP caucus-goers (plus-minus 5.1 percentage points).
The New Hampshire survey was conducted Oct. 3-5 of 2,218 total registered voters (plus-minus 2.1 percentage points) and of 691 likely Republican primary voters (plus-minus 3.7 percentage points).
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.