Aided by strong tea party support, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has surged in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, pushing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney into second place and significantly diminishing the once rising star of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Perry, who announced his candidacy three weeks ago, is now perceived by Republicans to be the best candidate to beat President Obama, a distinction previously held by Romney.

The findings come on the eve of the first Republican debate for the Texas governor and just ahead of Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress that will feature proposals to create jobs and stimulate economic growth. The Republican candidates will debate on Wednesday night, one of several debates to come in the next few weeks that could reshape the race.

Perry is enough of an untested national campaigner — and debater — that it may take weeks to determine his staying power as a candidate. But the new findings foreshadow a potentially fierce competition between the two top Republicans, a contest likely to highlight ideological and demographic divisions within the party.

Among all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, Perry edges ahead with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 22 percent, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at 14 percent, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, with 8 percent and Bachmann at 6 percent.