Reporting from Washington — Mitt Romney won a straw poll in one of the first early-state beauty contests of the 2012 presidential primary campaign, with New Hampshire Republicans giving him more than a third of their votes Saturday and Sarah Palin coming in a distant fourth.
The poll of 273 GOP voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state took place at the state Republican committee meeting in Derry, where members also selected a "tea party"-backed candidate as the new state chairman over an establishment choice.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who placed second in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, led the field of 20 potential candidates with 35% of the vote, well ahead of second-place finisher Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 11%.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has visited the state several times in the last year, placed third with 8%. Palin won 7% of the vote, followed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) with 5% each.
Palin, the former Alaska governor, has not visited New Hampshire since campaigning there as John McCain's vice presidential running mate in 2008. She has, however, made a number of trips to South Carolina and Iowa, two other states that traditionally lead off the nominating process.
At the convention, party members also elected tea party-backed Jack Kimball to replace former White House chief of staff and ex-New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu as party chairman. Kimball, who lost the state's gubernatorial primary in 2010, defeated businesswoman Juliana Bergeron, who was endorsed by Sununu.
Though the race for party leader was framed as a microcosm of the broader schism in the GOP between the establishment and a more conservative insurgency, Kimball told the New Hampshire Union Leader this week: "I'm not running as a tea party candidate."
How Kimball's victory could shape the Granite State's primary is as unclear as the field of candidates. No major candidates have officially announced that they are running. But potential hopefuls have been making stops in early nominating states like New Hampshire with increasing frequency.
This week, Pawlenty will make a two-day visit. He will sign copies of his new book at a Manchester bookstore and speak to a local Republican committee Monday. Tuesday, he will deliver a speech as part of the traditional "Politics and Eggs" series in Bedford.
Romney, who owns a home in the state, has headlined six events for state Republicans since mid-2009, according to an informal tally of a party official. He's scheduled to return in March.
The straw poll, sponsored by WMUR-TV and ABC News, also found that 49% of participants thought that reducing the size of the federal government was the most important issue the GOP's presidential nominee should focus on. Another 15% said reducing the debt and deficit was most important, while 14% said it was creating jobs. Seven percent cited repeal of the healthcare law, and 1% cited either outlawing abortion or stopping gay marriage.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is responsible for setting the date for the presidential primary, and state law requires it to be held seven days before any other contest. The national parties are trying for a mid-February primary there, which would be a month later than the Jan. 8 primary in 2008. Iowa, which held its 2008 caucuses in early January, pushed them back to February for 2012.