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Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is widely considered the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. But a Pew survey released today offers one reason why that distinction may still be up for grabs: Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has yet to officially announce that he's running for president, is more popular than any other GOP candidates among engaged Republicans and Tea Party supporters. Twenty-two percent of "highly attentive" Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters--those who say they've given "a lot of thought" to the election--support Perry, while 15 percent favor the second-place Romney. Perry also has the backing of 29 percent of "highly attentive" Tea Partiers--nearly double the support of the runner-up, Herman Cain. 

Attentiveness, moreover, isn't just a pollster's catchphrase. As The Washington Post's Aaron Blake pointed out earlier this month, attentive voters "are more likely to turn out to vote" and give us a sense of who in a presidential field is generating enthusiasm. "A poll of 'more attentive' voters can give a better picture of which way the race is headed, because the electorate generally starts to learn more about the candidates as Election Day nears," Blake explained. And there have been several signs in recent days that Perry's entrance into the race could make things a lot more interesting. Gallup concluded yesterday that the Texas governor "appears to be the strongest potential challenger to Romney at the moment," while Reuters wrote that Perry's "strong record on job creation" and "cross-over appeal among Republican voters--from social conservatives and the small government Tea Party to the mainstream business element" could represent the "first major test of Romney's 2012 bid."

There are also indications, however, that a Perry presidential run wouldn't be smooth sailing, either. Perry's recent comments on gay marriage being "fine" in New York--which he distanced himself from today--angered social conservatives, and The New York Times reported on Thursday that Perry might be having trouble recuperating from spinal fusion surgery. The evidence? The governor appears to have traded in his trademark cowboy boots for orthopedic-style black tennis shoes. 

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