AUSTIN, Texas — After weeks of riding high as the Republican front-runner, Gov. Rick Perry has taken a tumble in a national poll as he struggles to overcome a poor debate performance and relentless attacks on his nearly 11-year record as Texas' longest-serving governor.
Perry, who entered the race six weeks ago and took a steadily upward trajectory, dropped 10 points in the latest Fox News poll, yielding his lead in the Republican presidential race to chief rival Mitt Romney.
A key deadline faces Perry and other candidates Friday as they end their quarterly fundraising efforts. Perry fundraisers say they expect to surpass their minimum target of $10 million and are shooting for at least 18,000 individual donations to show that Perry has widespread grassroots support.
The Fox poll, released Wednesday night, signaled a major reshuffling in the scramble for the nomination, with Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, back in the lead with 23 percent.
Perry is now 4 points behind Romney and in second place with 19 percent. In the last poll, in late August, Perry led the field with 29 percent.
Real Clear Politics reported Thursday that Perry leads by 4.4 points in an average of five polls conducted since Sept. 13, including the Fox poll. A recent CNN/ORC poll, also included in the average, showed Perry with a 7-point lead.
The Fox poll also further documented a stunning surge by Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, who has vaulted from a back-of-the-pack candidate to the third-leading contender, with 17 percent, only 2 points behind Perry. Cain, who had 6 percent in the last Fox survey, was the surprise winner of last week's Republican straw poll in Florida, an event that Perry was heavily favored to win.
"I don't think it's over for Rick Perry by any stretch of the imagination," said pollster Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports. "I just think he's been brought down into the field with the rest of the candidates. No matter what poll you look at, he's still near the top, so that's not a bad place to be."
Perry supporters acknowledged that the governor stumbled in last week's Republican debate in Florida — his third since entering the race — but they've described the setback as a bump in the road that Perry will overcome. But some analysts say Florida's plans to possibly to move up its primary date could cause further problems for Perry by giving him less time to overcome his setbacks.
A Florida commission is expected to meet Friday to change the state's primary date to Jan. 31, ahead of traditional early contest states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Those states will likely change their dates to stay ahead of Florida, causing a major retooling of the primary and caucus calendar and forcing candidates to ramp up their campaign schedules.
Also gathering momentum was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now in fourth place with 11 percent, an 8-point climb from the last poll. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, though still in single digits, also advanced, from 1 percent to 4 percent.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has attracted a loyal following with a libertarian-style message, dipped slightly, from 8 percent to 6 percent and is in fifth place.
The poll gave more bad news to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who won a mid-August Republican straw poll in Iowa and was initially seen as a potentially strong contender with heavy "tea party" support. She registered only 3 percent in the Fox poll, down from a high of 15 percent in a July survey.