WASHINGTON - U.S. voters are nearly evenly divided between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney with five months to go before the election, especially on handling the economy, polls show.
With U.S. unemployment still hovering above 8 per cent, both candidates have stepped up their emphasis on jobs and the economy. Obama and Romney have offered a starkly differing vision of how the economy should work as they appeal to voters who say jobs are the foremost issue in the November election.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Obama and Romney locked in a dead heat over handling the economy. They are tied at 47 per cent.
Overall, 49 per cent said they back Obama for re-election and 46 per cent preferred Romney, a statistically insignificant difference.
Other recent national polls show a similarly close margin.
Earlier polls generally showed the former Massachusetts governor holding a slight lead over Obama on economic issues and Obama slightly ahead overall.
But the tightening follows an aggressive attack on Romney's business credentials by the Obama campaign, including ads painting him as a job-destroying corporate raider at Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he co-founded.
The Obama campaign has focused on two companies that were closed down or failed after they were absorbed into the web of enterprises under Bain Capital. Romney maintains financial ties to the company but left it years ago to run the Salt Lake City Olympic games and then to serve as Massachusetts governor.
Romney called the attacks "character assassination." But Obama defended the tactic on Monday as legitimate and suggested Romney's background was a poor qualification for the White House since being president involves more than "maximizing profits."
The survey found that 80 per cent of Americans still hold a negative view of the economy, but 54 per cent said they felt more positively about the economic situation in the coming years, and 58 per cent felt the financial prospects would improve.
The president says the drive for profit is "not always going to be good for communities or businesses or workers."
The Obama campaign's line of attack illustrates the president's complicated relationship with the business community. He has used populist language to attack Wall Street executives and bankers as "fat cats" and called for an end to tax subsidies for oil and gas companies, but he also expanded the government's rescue of the auto industry and has promoted tax breaks for small businesses.
While some of his Wall Street support has waned, he still draws a significant amount of campaign contributions from major investors, retaining a good relationship with, among others, billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Romney's campaign has welcomed the debate on jobs.
"President Obama confirmed today that he will continue his attacks on the free enterprise system," Romney said Monday. "What this election is about is the 23 million Americans who are still struggling to find work and the millions who have lost their homes and have fallen into poverty. President Obama refuses to accept moral responsibility for his failed policies. My campaign is offering a positive agenda to help America get back to work."
Romney swept the Arkansas and Kentucky Republican presidential primaries Tuesday, inching closer to clinching the nomination by winning at least 73 of the 75 delegates at stake in the two states.
Romney now has 1,065 delegates, leaving him just 79 shy of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention in late August in Tampa, Florida. He should clinch the nomination in next week's Texas primary.
With no serious opposition left in the state-by-state Republican primary race, Romney has been focusing on fundraising for the general election and his campaign against Obama.
Obama's political weakness in Southern states was reflected in the Democratic primaries in the two states. In Kentucky, about 42 per cent of voters selected "uncommitted," while in Arkansas a little known Tennessee attorney, John Wolfe, drew about 40 per cent on the Democratic side.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, meanwhile, suggested that Obama's endorsement of gay marriage two weeks ago was a political wash, with 17 per cent saying it makes them more likely to vote for him and 20 per cent saying it makes them more likely to vote for Romney, who opposes gay marriage. Sixty two per cent said it makes no difference in their vote.