(CNN) – Before the first ballots are cast in Iowa Tuesday night, Mitt Romney can claim a small lead in the race to win the Republican presidential nomination.
The former Massachusetts governor has secured the early public support of 11 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, compared to two for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and one for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
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The early delegate tally is the result of a CNN survey of certain state party chairs and Republican National Committee members who have guaranteed voting privileges at the GOP convention in Tampa next August and who, under their state rules, are "unpledged" or free to support the presidential candidate of their choice.
Romney's lead includes all three RNC members from his home state. State party chairman Bob Maginn, a long-time supporter of the former governor, asked the Massachusetts GOP executive committee to suspend neutrality requirements in the party's bylaws so that he could publicly support Romney.
Perry's two delegates also include his home-state's GOP chairman. Santorum has the backing of the national committeewoman from Iowa, where he's recently surged in polls.
Like Democratic "superdelegates," who played a key role in the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination, unpledged RNC-member delegates are not bound by the results of their home state's presidential primary or caucuses. They may also switch their support to another candidate at their own discretion.
While there are over 700 Democratic "superdelegates," there are just over 100 unpledged RNC-member delegates. Every state and territory receives three RNC-member delegate votes reserved for their state GOP chair, national committeeman and committeewoman. About a third of these delegates are required to cast their convention votes according to their state's primary or caucus results.
Currently, five states' RNC delegates will not have voting privileges at the Republican National Convention next August. The national party stripped New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Michigan of RNC-member delegates as a penalty for holding their primaries earlier than the RNC rules allowed.
CNN's on-going delegate estimate will include delegates allocated through various contests as well public endorsements from unpledged RNC-member delegates.