Before the first punch is thrown

BEFORE THE FIRST PUNCH IS THROWN…. Chris Cillizza takes a look at the latest 2012 polls and notes a result that isn’t entirely in line with expectations: the former moderate governor of Massachusetts is doing better than expected with the conservative Republican base.

Mitt Romney is the choice of nearly one in four of those who agree with the tenets of the tea party, according to a new Pew poll, a surprising result that suggests the former Massachusetts governor’s support heading into 2012 may be broader than previously assumed.

Among tea party supporters, Romney took 24 percent to 19 percent for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, 15 percent for former House speaker Newt Gingrich and 13 percent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul…. The Pew poll comes less than two weeks after a Washington Post/ABC News survey showed Romney running strong among the party’s conservatives; more than seven in 10 Republicans who described themselves as “very” conservative had a favorable opinion of Romney. […]

The Pew and Post results — coming so close to one another — seem to make clear that Romney, who has largely been cast as an establishment pick, has wider reach within the party than first imagined.

Agreed, that’s certainly what the data shows at this point, and it’s why Romney is generally considered a weak frontrunner — he’s hardly the prohibitive favorite, but as the candidates take their place in the starting blocks, Romney looks ready to lead the field.

But my suggestion for the poll watchers is simple: wait.

Romney has high name recognition, and he’s been campaigning for president every day since at least 2007. It stands to reason that he’d out in front before the process gets underway in earnest, when voters aren’t engaged and haven’t heard much about any of the candidates.

But that’s going to change. At this point in 2007, Rudy Giuliani looked very strong as a presidential candidate, right up until voters were told who he is and what his positions are, at which point he went from first to last in record time. When he was riding high, the media concluded that the GOP base cared more about national security than Giuliani’s record on social issues, when in reality, the problem was that the voters hadn’t heard about Giuliani’s record on social issues yet, and once they did, his candidacy was doomed.

Romney’s not quite as vulnerable, but the attack ads won’t even have to stretch the truth — he’s a former pro-choice governor who supported gay rights and combating climate change, who distanced himself from Reagan. Romney’s sole accomplishment served as a blueprint for President Obama’s health care policy, considered poison in Republican politics.

Indeed, Public Policy Polling recently asked Republican voters, “Would you be willing to vote for someone who supported a bill at the state level mandating that voters have health insurance for president?” A whopping 61% said they would not.

And guess who that affects?

Those who are surprised right-wing activists are supporting Romney despite his health care policy are assuming those activists know about Romney’s health care policy. They don’t — but they will.