WASHINGTON — Still sour on the state of the U.S. economy, Americans are nonetheless heading into the home stretch to Election Day feeling better about the country's future and about how President Barack Obama is doing his job, a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows.
Republican rival Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has lost his pre-convention edge on the economy amid a flurry of distractions that have taken him on a detour from the central message of his campaign.
For all of that, neither candidate has managed to break away in the drum-tight presidential race.
Obama is supported by 47 percent of likely voters and Romney by 46 percent, according to the poll. The survey was ending just as word surfaced of Romney's caught-on-tape comment that he doesn't worry about the 47 percent of people who pay no income taxes, describing them as believing they are victims and dependent on government.
The poll results vividly underscore the importance that turnout will play in determining the victor in Campaign 2012: Among all adults, Obama has a commanding lead, favored by 52 percent of Americans to just 37 percent for Romney.
That gap virtually vanishes among likely voters, promising an all-out fight to gin up enthusiasm among core supporters and dominate get-out-the-vote operations. That's an area where Obama claimed a strong advantage in 2008 and Republicans reigned four years earlier.
The poll gives both sides reason for hope:
—Romney is beckoning to voters unhappy with Obama's handling of the economy, and there is plenty of grim sentiment in the survey. Sixty-five percent of likely voters think the economy is worse off or no better than four years ago, 57 percent don't expect unemployment to ease in the next year and 39 percent don't expect the economy to get any better in the next 12 months.
—Obama, for his part, can take encouragement from other findings. His approval rating is back above 50 percent for the first time since May, and the share of Americans who think the country is moving in the right direction is at its highest level since just after the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. And on the economy, 49 percent of adults think things will get better in the next year, up from 41 percent before the conventions.
The two candidates run about even among likely voters in the poll on who would best handle the economy or the federal budget deficit, but Obama has narrow advantages on protecting the country, social issues and health care.
L'Tonya Ford, a 42-year-old Democrat from Detroit, said that progress on the economy has been slower than she'd like but that all signs point to Romney making things worse.
Obama's "trying to do something," she says. "Give him four more years and let him do what he's doing."
Sixty-eight-year-old Vicki Deakins, a Republican sizing up the race from Garland, Texas, is a solid Romney supporter, but she exudes more enthusiasm for GOP running mate Paul Ryan than for Romney himself.
"I don't know that Romney knows how to state emphatically, with fire and passion and guts and all that other stuff, what he wants to do," she says. "I don't think he'll be a great orator. But I do think he'll get the job done."
Americans have been increasingly focused on the presidential race since the two candidates barreled out of their summer conventions into the fall campaign: Nearly three-fourths of adults say they're paying close attention now, up modestly from earlier in the summer. And with early voting scheduled to be under way in two dozen states by week's end, just 17 percent of likely voters remain undecided or say that they might change their minds.
Among those voters still making up their minds or open to changing their positions — the coveted bloc of "persuadable" voters — 56 percent see their choice this year as a hard decision.
Twenty-three-year-old Devin Vinson of Starksville, Mass., says he's waiting to hear more about the candidates' positions on education, foreign policy and more.
Vinson, a Republican, is leaning toward Obama but says the close race has him weighing his decision this time more carefully than four years ago, when his family persuaded him to back Republican John McCain.
"That was my first time voting and I just didn't really care about it back then," he admits.
The poll shows most Americans say they have a good idea of what each candidate would do if elected, and voters who know a good deal about both men tilt toward Romney. Still 59 percent in this group expect Obama to win a second term.
Romney lost his summertime edge on the economy as his campaign was distracted by criticism of his hasty response to the Obama administration's handling of the eruption of violence in Egypt and Libya last week and by his failure to mention the war in Afghanistan or thank the troops in his prime-time convention speech. Now, he's trying to explain his "inelegant" comments about Americans who are dependent on government.
"This has not been the best three weeks in the history of American politics for the Romney campaign," allows GOP consultant Rich Galen. But he said the most significant trend is that the economy remains "a great weight around the ankles of Obama."
Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, meanwhile, zeroes in on the significance of Obama's job approval rating edging back up above 50 percent. Fifty-two percent of likely voters approved of how Obama's handling his job, as did 56 percent of all adults. Further, 42 percent of Americans think the country is heading in the right direction, up from figures in the low- to mid-30s over the summer.
"If you were buying a stock and you were looking at the underlying trends, you would be putting your futures on Obama," Lehane said.
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The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted Sept. 13-17, 2012, by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,512 adults nationwide, including 1,282 registered voters and 807 likely voters. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points, for registered voters it is 3.4 percentage points and likely voters it is 4.3 percentage points.
AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and AP writers Stacy A. Anderson and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.