(CNN) - He keeps saying no to third run for the White House, but another new poll – this time in Iowa – indicates Mitt Romney would be the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination if he changes his mind.
A USA Today/Suffolk University survey of Iowa voters released Wednesday should add to the feeding frenzy over a possible 2016 presidential bid by the 2012 GOP nominee. While the former Massachusetts governor's repeatedly said he's not running again, the attention such speculation captures is a sign of the wide open nature right now of the upcoming Republican nomination race.
According to the new poll, if Romney was added to the list of potential 2016 GOP White House contenders, 35% of Iowa Republicans say he'd be their first choice in the Iowa caucuses, which kick off the presidential primary and caucus calendar.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses and is considering another bid in 2016, is a distant second, at 9%. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who narrowly won the 2012 caucuses, are each at 6%. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are each at 5%, with the remaining potential candidates tested were all in the lower single digits.
Take Romney out of the equation, and the poll indicates Huckabee – at 13% is on top of the crowded list of potential candidates. He's followed by Christie at 11%, Perry at 9% Paul at 7%, Santorum and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, each at 6% and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at 5%. The remaining potential candidates tested were all in the lower single digits.
The poll's 2016 GOP nomination results not only reflect the wide open race among the Republicans but are most likely also a reflection of name recognition.
"Think about it – we're still closer to the last presidential election than the next one. So until some of these other potential candidates have more time to really begin campaigning in earnest, I think Romney will continue to be top of mind for a lot of average voters," longtime South Carolina GOP consultant Joel Sawyer, senior VP of the Republican digital firm Push Digital, recently told CNN.
Romney keeps saying no
The poll's release comes one day after Romney said in a radio interview that "someone else stands a better chance of winning than I do."
"Had that not been the case," Romney told radio host Hugh Hewitt, "then I would be running."
Romney's been very clear on the subject of 2016.
"The answer is no, I'm not running for president in 2016. It's time for someone else to take that responsibility and I'll be supporting our nominee," he told anchor Wolf Blitzer in February on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer"
He's been using the same "I'm not running" language over and over again. And Romney's wife, Ann, has also been adamant against another run.
Romney tops the field in New Hampshire
Regardless, pollsters are asking about Romney. Two public opinion surveys conducted this summer in New Hampshire – WMUR/Granite State and Suffolk University/Boston Herald – indicated that Romney would be the overwhelming front runner in the first-in-the-nation primary state if he decided to run again.
The first poll to spark the Romney 2016 flames was an ABC News/Washington Post national survey released last November that suggested that if the 2012 presidential election between Romney and President Braack Obama were held today, Romney would hold a slight lead in the popular vote. Obama won the popular vote in the 2012 contest by a 51%-47% margin.
The flames were further fanned earlier this summer when by a 45%-38% margin, voters nationwide questioned in Quinnipiac University poll said that the country would be better off if Romney rather than Obama had won the 2012 election. And a CNN/ORC International survey conducted last month indicated Romney topping the President 53%-44% in the popular vote if the 2012 election were somehow held again.
GOP strategist Kevin Madden, who served as a senior adviser in Romney's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, recently told CNN that "the interest in Romney is driven by those who believe, very deeply, that he would have been a very effective president and that he has been proven right on so many issues and ideas that he advanced in the 2012 campaign."
"But conceptual candidacies are very enticing, almost irresistible. Actual candidacies are cold, hard realities. There's a universe of differences between the two," added Madden, a CNN contributor.
That CNN/ORC poll backs up Madden's point. The survey suggested Romney losing to Hillary Clinton by a 55%-42% margin in a hypothetical 2016 matchup.
The USA Today/Suffolk University poll was conducted August 23-26, with 500 likely 2014 voters in Iowa questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.