By STEVE PEOPLES, ASSOCIATED PRESS
(AP) EXETER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney may be tightening his grip on New Hampshire voters, despite tremendous buzz surrounding Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the nation's first presidential primary state and elsewhere.
The former Massachusetts governor now leads his nearest rival, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, by 27 points among likely New Hampshire voters, according to a Suffolk University-7News poll released Wednesday night. Perry finished far back, earning 8 percent compared with Romney's 41 percent. Paul took 14 percent and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman received 10 percent to round out the top four finishers.
Suffolk reported a 4.9-point margin of error in the survey of 400 likely GOP primary voters taken Sept. 18 to 20.
It was the first nonpartisan poll focused on New Hampshire since Perry formally joined the race almost six weeks ago. In recent weeks, he has been considered the GOP frontrunner after top finishes in several nationwide polls. But winning the Republican nomination usually depends on performances in individual states.
Perry has devoted considerable time and energy to New Hampshire so far, having already made three separate trips here. Earlier Wednesday, his campaign released an endorsement list of 27 state representatives. And he has consistently drawn large crowds.
But the energy hasn't translated into strong poll numbers in a state that allows Republicans and Independents to participate in the GOP primary. The New Hampshire primary date has yet to be set but is likely five months away.
Perry's finish far behind Romney surprised some local Republicans, who have seen strong interest in Perry's campaign.
"If you just made assumptions based on the buzz about Perry, you would have thought he would have been neck and neck with Romney. This is pretty shocking to me," said Jamie Burnett, an uncommitted adviser who led Romney's New Hampshire operation four years ago.
But Burnett also said many Republicans described Perry's performance at a recent event as "underwhelming."
Romney enjoys natural advantages in New Hampshire. He was the governor of a neighboring state and has a summer home on a lake in the central part of the state. The Perry campaign highlighted Wednesday's new endorsements and said the Texas governor would continue to be "a frequent visitor" to New Hampshire.
"Some of those in the race have been running for president virtually full time for many years," Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said. "After just six weeks as a presidential candidate, Governor Perry's pro-jobs, conservative message is dominating the national agenda and laying the groundwork for defeating President Obama."
Suffolk pollster David Paleologos suggested that pundits may need to re-think the conventional wisdom that the presidential contest has turned into a two-man race.
"Mitt Romney is saying `get out of my backyard' and making New Hampshire his strong firewall despite showing some weakness in the other states' early primaries," said Paleologos, director of Suffolk University's Political Research Center. "The anti-Romney candidate at this point could be either Ron Paul, who has polled consistently over the past year, or Jon Huntsman, whose numbers are really growing in the Granite State."
Another New Hampshire-based GOP operative cautioned against reading too much into one poll.
"One poll is meaningless," said Michael Dennehy, an uncommitted Republican who led Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign four years ago. "One needs a series of good poll numbers to indicate a strong connection with voters."