Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney continues to strengthen his commanding position in the New Hampshire presidential primary contest but faces opposition from some surprising challengers, says a new survey conducted by Magellan Strategies on behalf of NH Journal.

Romney leads all the candidates on the primary election ballot with 41%. Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain has rocketed into second place with 20%. And Texas Congressman Ron Paul places third with 10%. All other candidates were in single digits.

Cain’s emergence as a top tier candidate following a series of strong debate performances has developed into a major subtext of the 2012 campaign. He has earned an extremely positive public image rating with 62% of respondents saying they have a favorable opinion of him and only 25% saying they have an unfavorable opinion of him. That is second only to Gov. Romney who maintains a stellar image of 68% favorable / 22% unfavorable.

Cain has not campaigned much in New Hampshire recently, however, nor does he have an organized effort. In fact, without even a state office in New Hampshire it remains to be seen whether he can hold this momentum. It is important to note that in each of the last four months there have been different second place candidates and each has fallen due to different circumstances.

Apart from Cain, the candidate to see the most impressive gains is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. After months of being upside down, Gingrich has improved his image rating to even. He is viewed favorable and unfavorably by 45%. Two months ago, Gingrich was viewed unfavorably by a 2-to-1 margin.

The candidates’ image rating could be closely tied to the surprisingly consequential debates that have taken place this cycle. According to the Magellan survey, 48% of respondents who watched the recent Bloomberg-Washington Post debate in Hanover, NH say Romney delivered the strongest performance. Twenty-four percent said Cain did and 10% said Gingrich did.

No other candidate on the ballot has a positive image rating. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has suffered the most precipitous decline in his image among the candidates. Two months ago he entered the race with more than twice as many voters saying they had a favorable opinion of him. Today only 19% of respondents view him favorably and two-thirds view him unfavorably.

The same cannot be said about the Tea Party movement, which appears to maintain popular support in the Granite State. Sixty-one percent of respondents have a favorable view of the Tea Party. Only 26% have an unfavorable view.

The survey of 736 likely 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary voters was conducted between October 12th and October 13th and has a margin of error of +/‐ 3.61% at the 95 percent confidence interval. The survey results are weighted based upon past voter turnout demographics.

New Hampshire 2012 GOP Presidential Primary Survey Topline Results 101411[3]

New Hampshire 2012 Republican Primary Survey Crosstabs 101411[3]