FILE - NH Chris Sununu 8-15-2019

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks Aug. 15, 2019, at an event at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

(The Center Square) – Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has retained his ranking as one of America's most popular governors, according to a new poll, which shows him as a leading contender to take on incumbent U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan in 2022.

The Republican had a 72% approval rating for his job as governor in the latest poll from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which was conducted last month.

"A lot of this stems from his handling of the COVID outbreak," said Andy Smith, a professor of political science at the UNH and the survey center's longtime director. "Sununu's job favorability rating on handling of the pandemic is very high, even among Democrats."

Smith said at least 51% of Democrats who responded said they approved Sununu's job as governor.

The poll, which surveyed about 1,700 likely voters Feb. 18-22, showed Sununu with a small lead over Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan in a potential 2022 matchup between them.

Sununu had 48% to Hassan's 46%, which was within the survey's margin of error, according to UNH Polling.

To be sure, Sununu hasn't said whether he will run for the Senate seat or seek a fourth term as governor in 2022, but has hinted of a run for higher office.

Republican Kelly Ayotte, who lost the seat to Hassan by 1,017 votes in 2016, hasn't said if she will seek a rematch next year.

Sununu, 46, handily won a third-term in the Nov. 3 election with more than 65% of the vote.

The Newfields Republican, who outperformed former Republican President Donald Trump among the state’s GOP voters, has seen his margin of victory increase with every election.

Sununu was the youngest governor in the country when he took office in 2017. His lineage harkens from one of the state’s most storied political families. His father, John H. Sununu, was also a former governor and White House chief of staff, and his brother, John H. Sununu, served a term in the U.S. Senate.

Smith said Gov. Sununu has been careful to avoid the political minefield that awaits New Hampshire governors who get too deeply involved in partisan bickering.

"He hasn't created a lot of partisan strife, which makes it difficult for Democrats to attack him," he said. "And he is a very likable guy, which goes a long way in this state."