LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney holds a wide lead in the early primary state of New Hampshire, with former pizza executive Herman Cain a distant second place, a poll showed.

Romney, a former governor from neighboring Massachusetts, leads the Republican field with 37 percent support in the poll released late on Friday by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center/WMUR. Cain trails with 12 percent, followed by Texas congressman Ron Paul at 9 percent and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman at 8 percent.

"Romney is solid here and has the highest favorability ratings, and he's had those for two years," said Andrew Smith, director of the polling group. "It's kind of an obstacle course for the front-runner, but as long as they make it through those obstacles they win."

In the polling group's last poll in July, Romney had 35 percent support.

New Hampshire's primary, traditionally the first in the nation, could be held in early January or even December following moves by other states to bring forward their primaries or caucuses.

New Hampshire's mostly moderate Republicans had little love for Tea Party favorites Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.

Texas Governor Perry drew just 4 percent, tied with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Minnesota congresswoman Bachmann lagged at just 2 percent.

The poll of 345 likely Republican primary voters was conducted between September 26 and October 6, and had a margin of error of 5.3 percentage points.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has not entered the race, was at 8 percent. Three percent backed former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who said on October 5 that she would not run.

A range of data showed Romney's strength in the state, where he owns a vacation home: 65 percent of those polled said they expect Romney to win the Republican nomination, and 52 percent said he was the Republican with the best chance to beat President Barack Obama in the November 2012 general election.

Cain is the latest Republican to gain momentum and appear as a potential alternative to Romney. Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich all briefly emerged as potential challengers to Romney in New Hampshire before fading.

"There have been a number of people who have gotten that bounce over 10 percent but haven't been able to consolidate support," Smith said.

Republican candidates will debate in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Jason McLure, editing by Ros Krasny and Eric Beech)

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