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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's fortunes are improving slightly, although he would face a tough struggle for re-election next year if Mitt Romney were the Republican nominee, a Reuters/Ipsos poll said on Friday.
Forty-nine percent of Americans approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president, up from 47 percent in an October poll.
Obama's disapproval rating held steady at 50 percent.
While still low, the percentage of Americans who believe the country is headed in the right direction also increased, to 25 from 21 in the previous survey. The percentage who feel it is on the wrong track slipped to 70 from 74, the survey said.
The poll showed Obama would finish just behind Romney if the November 2012 presidential election were held today, with the former Massachusetts governor at 44 percent and Obama at 43 percent among registered voters.
It was the first Reuters/Ipsos poll to show Romney ahead, although his slim lead is within the survey's margin of error and technically a dead heat.
Obama led Romney by 6 percentage points when the same question was asked in a poll in September.
Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said the signs pointed to a close 2012 election.
"Romney, and the Republican field generally, are becoming more well-known to the American electorate, and I think we are going to see this narrow gap now between the Republican front-runners and Obama going forward," she said.
"It's essential that Obama retain these high approval ratings," she said.
The Democratic president was ahead of two of the other Republicans vying for the nomination to oppose him next November. He led businessman Herman Cain by 46 percent to 41 percent and was ahead of Texas Governor Rick Perry by 47 percent to 41 percent.
The poll was taken as news reports about sexual harassment allegations against Cain in the 1990s broke.
The poll was conducted from October 31 to Thursday. It interviewed 1,106 adults, of whom 937 were registered voters. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.9 percentage points for all adults, and plus or minus 3.2 percentage points for registered voters.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, editing by Doina Chiacu and Philip Barbara