WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s re-election hopes in 2012 could be getting brighter as the bruising Republican nomination fight intensifies and the struggling U.S. economy shows signs of hope.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday found Obama dramatically expanding his advantage over Mitt Romney to 8 percentage points, up from a 1-point deficit in early November, and leading Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich by 13 points.
Obama’s approval rating of 47 percent is little changed since the beginning of the year as the Republicans stumble, suggesting that the increasingly bitter fight for the right to challenge him in November could be taking its toll on his potential rivals.
A series of high-profile debates have given broad exposure to a Republican race marked by wild mood swings all year. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and now Gingrich all have taken turns near the top of the Republican pack along with the steady Romney.
But each of those contenders has fallen back through missteps or, in Cain’s case, allegations of an extramarital affair, dimming their chances and perhaps influencing the public’s view of all the Republican contenders.
“As the voters get a better sense of their choices, Obama is starting to come out better,” said Republican Dan Schnur, an aide on John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. “The general impression of Republicans is being colored by the whole field.”
The two Republican leaders, Romney and Gingrich, also have intensified their attacks on each other as the first nomination contest in Iowa nears in less than three weeks. The criticisms, focused on Gingrich’s background and temperament and Romney’s flip-flopping, are likely to linger through November.
“The debates have been very important, they’ve allowed Gingrich’s rise, but they’ve also allowed the rest of the country to form some doubts of their own about the field,” said Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
Most polls show the general election race between Obama and the Republican nominee is likely to be tight, and some other polls show Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Gingrich, the former House speaker, performing better against Obama in head-to-head matchups than in the Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Gallup reported this week the national race between Obama and Romney has been largely unchanged since August and general election preferences have been stable. A Gallup/USA Today poll this week found Obama losing to both Romney and Gingrich in 12 battleground states that are likely to decide the election.
“The important polls to look at are those in key swing states showing voters fed up with the president’s inability to turn the economy around,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “Obama is upside down in job approval as well as approval on how he’s handled the economy.”
Obama’s advisers believe the Republican infighting is helping his cause by driving both Romney and Gingrich to the right in an effort to appeal to conservative primary voters, making Obama look better to independent voters who will be more prominent in a general election.
“I think they’re mortgaging ... themselves by tacking as far as they are now, and I think the longer this race goes, the more they’re going to do that and the harder it is to scramble back,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign strategist.
A slowly improving economy also could bolster Obama’s chances heading into next November’s election. A Reuters poll of economists showed on Wednesday they expect the economy will grow moderately in 2012, at 2.1 percent.
A drop in the unemployment rate last month to 8.6 percent, as well as relatively strong consumer spending, also has buoyed hopes for the economy.
“Any uptick in the economy between now and Election Day is going to benefit the president,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “He’s still better than a coin flip to win this.”
Obama predicted earlier this week the unemployment rate could be down to around 8 percent by November, a figure that would be critical to his re-election bid.
The economy is also expected to grow moderately, although data on Tuesday showed retail sales in November growing at their slowest pace in five months.
“If you ask Americans how they feel about the direction of our country, nearly 75 percent say we are moving in the wrong direction,” Kukowski said. (Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; editing by Anthony Boadle)