LOS ANGELES — Mitt Romney is stepping away from the rest of the field for the GOP presidential nomination and is increasingly competitive against President Barack Obama, though the former Massachusetts governor faces a potential problem because of his religion, according to the Quinnipiac poll released this week.
A quarter of Republicans or GOP-leaning independent voters said they would back Romney over the rest of field for the Republican nod.
It was the best showing for Romney in months and the first time any Republican had garnered so much support from his own party, a sign that Republicans may be coalescing a bit in these early days of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Still, Romney faces a possible political problem because of his religion, the Quinnipiac poll and other surveys have found. Overall, only 45 percent said they had a favorable opinion of the Mormon religion, while 32 percent said they had an unfavorable one.
Other polls have found different numbers, but most agree that between a quarter and a third of voters say they would have a prob lem voting for a Mormon, creating a tough situation for Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is flirting with a presidential bid.
"The fact that less than half of voters have a favorable view of the religion is likely to be a political issue that Gov. Mitt Romney, and should his campaign catch on, Gov. Jon Huntsman, will have to deal with as they pursue the White House," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The nation's anti-Mormon feelings aren't new. In 2007, Romney tried to defuse the issue with a speech stressing common values.
According to the poll, Romney has opened up a lead over the rest of the GOP field, which has been seen as weak and fluid. Ranking in second place was Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice pres idential nominee, who received 15 percent.
Palin has yet to announce her intentions, though she captured the media's attention in her recent bus tour of patriotic sites in the East.
Herman Cain, a businessman, continues to draw attention in third place with 9 percent, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are tied at 8 percent. Rep Michele Bachmann gets 6 percent and former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is at 5 percent.
The Quinnipiac poll is based on telephone interviews with 1,946 registered voters, conducted from May 31 to Monday. It has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, though some questions dealing with GOP primary preferences have smaller samples and a higher margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Perhaps most significantly for Romney, the poll found that in a trial heat against Obama, the former businessman runs close, losing 47 percent to 41 percent. It is the best showing by a Republican candidate in the poll; Pawlenty loses by 12 percentage points and Palin by 17.
Voters remain split on whether Obama should be re-elected, with 46 percent favoring and 48 percent opposed.
It was the second day of good polling news for Romney. On Tuesday, the ABC/Washington Post poll had Romney ahead of Palin, 21 percent to 17 percent. The poll gave Romney a three percentage- point margin over Obama, but the race was a statistical dead heat.
The ABC/Washington Post poll was based on 1,002 telephone interviews conducted Thursday through Sunday.
It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.