WASHINGTON — Months into a bruising primary campaign, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney is still neck and neck with President Barack Obama in a hypothetical general election matchup, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.
Obama leads Romney 46-44 percent, suggesting a country that remains closely divided between the major parties, unwilling to rally to the Democratic incumbent and refusing to cast aside the front-runner for the Republican nomination after a dark hour of attacks and sniping inside his party.
Rick Santorum, the other major GOP candidate, remains close to Obama as well. The poll finds the president leading him 48-43 percent in a possible fall matchup.
A key reason they're both close: Each edges the president among independent voters by 1 point. Another: The president, while enjoying an uptick of support on his handling of the economy and foreign affairs, nevertheless has the overall job approval of fewer than half of American voters at 48 percent, with 47 percent disapproving and 5 percent unsure. He fares a tad better when voters were asked whether they have favorable or unfavorable impressions of him: Fifty percent are favorable, 46 percent unfavorable and 3 percent unsure.
"We've come through a very divisive primary season, but the presidential matchups between Obama and Romney are pretty much where we were when this started," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll.
"That's driven by where Obama is. The president's approval is defining the landscape."
Among other findings: Romney leads the Republican field for the nomination, he leads Santorum in a two-man race if Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul drop out and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would bring more to a Romney ticket than Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American — even among Latino voters.
Overall, voters give the president improving marks this spring on some key issues. On the economy, 46 percent approve of his performance and 51 percent disapprove, his best showing since June 2010. On foreign policy, 50 percent approve — the highest since June 2009 — while 45 percent disapprove.
On another key barometer, 43 percent of adults say the country is headed in the right direction, while 53 percent say it's going the wrong way. That's also the best score in two years.
Among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, Romney leads for the nomination with scant evidence that Santorum can catch up. The poll found Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, supported by 39 percent, former Sen. Santorum of Pennsylvania by 31 percent, former House Speaker Gingrich by 13 percent and Rep Paul of Texas by 13 percent.
Romney also leads a two-way race with Santorum by 50-44 percent — a sign that Santorum wouldn't pull ahead even if Gingrich dropped out. Miringoff said it was simply wrong for Santorum to assume that all of Gingrich's supporters would side with him because he claims he's more conservative.
"What happens to Gingrich supporters?" Miringoff said. "Some might stay home. Some are interested in things like experience, not necessarily conservatism. The appeal of Gingrich and Santorum ideologically covers a lot of the same space. But that's not the only thing voters are picking."
Looking ahead to an Obama-Romney matchup, Obama holds 89 percent of Democrats, Romney gets 87 percent of Republicans and independents split 44-43 for Romney.
Obama leads among female voters by 48-42, and African-Americans by 91-6. Romney leads among men by 47-44, whites 51-40 and Latinos 48-37.
In an Obama-Santorum election, Obama also holds 89 percent of Democrats, Santorum gets 83 percent of Republicans and independents split 45-44 for Santorum. Obama leads among women 49-40 and African-Americans 90-4. The two split men 47-47. Santorum leads among whites 50-42 and Latinos 44-42.
The poll also measured what Bush or Rubio would bring to a Romney ticket. An Obama-Joe Biden ticket ties Romney-Bush at 47-47 percent and leads Romney-Rubio at 49-44 among registered voters.
Bush is stronger on a hypothetical ticket than Rubio is among conservatives and independents, and he helps the ticket do much better in the Midwest, a political battleground.
Bush's biggest strength is among Latinos, where he easily outperforms Rubio — despite Rubio's Cuban heritage — which leads many Republicans to dream of making inroads into the Hispanic vote not only in Florida but also nationwide. A Romney-Bush ticket beats Obama-Biden among Latinos by 57-39, a 18-point margin. By contrast, the Democrats beat a Romney-Rubio ticket among Latinos by 50-46 percent.
Miringoff said that Bush advantage stemmed from the fact that his name was better known — and had been more popular with Latino voters than many other Republicans had.
"Rubio is still fairly unknown," he said. "I wouldn't say he doesn't bring anything to the ticket. Because of his lack of name ID, it's too early to say."
This survey of 1,080 adults was conducted last Tuesday through Thursday. Adults who live in the continental United States were interviewed by telephone. Telephone numbers were selected based on a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers. The two samples were then combined. Results are statistically significant within 3.0 percentage points. There were 846 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within 3.5 percentage points. There were 377 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. The results for this subset are statistically significant within 5.0 percentage points. The margin of error increases for cross-tabulations.
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