Americans are growing increasingly optimistic about the future of the U.S. economy, and likely voters trust Republican Mitt Romney slightly more than President Barack Obama to do a better job of managing it, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows.
On the cusp of an election offering stark choices on how best to handle the economy, 60 percent of Americans still describe the current economic situation as poor, but almost as many think things will get better in the coming year. More voters expect the number of unemployed to go down, too. Forty-two percent anticipate improvement in the jobs picture, up 10 percentage points from a month ago.
For all of the shifting dynamics in economic expectations and voters' growing comfort with Romney, though, the presidential race is still a virtual dead heat, with Romney favored by 47 percent of likely voters and Obama by 45 percent, a result within the poll's margin of sampling error.
And what matters most in the election endgame is Romney's standing in the handful of states whose electoral votes still are up for grabs. And polls in a number of those battleground states still appear to favor Obama.
After a commanding first debate performance and a generally good month, Romney has gained ground with Americans on a number of important fronts, including his overall favorability rating and voters' impressions of his ability to understand their problems. He's also sharply narrowed the gender gap, with women now split evenly between the two candidates and Romney holding a slight edge among men.
At the same time, expectations that Obama will be re-elected have slipped: Half of voters now expect the president to win a second term, down from 55 percent a month earlier.
Seventeen percent of likely voters in the survey reported they've already cast ballots, a sharp reminder to the candidates that they have little time left to sway voters.
Among those yet to vote, the economy is a recurring theme as they explain their decisions:
Monica Jensen, a 55-year-old independent from Mobile, Ala., says she voted for Obama in 2008 but will shift her vote to Romney this time, largely because of the economy.
"I'm ready for a change," she said. "I want to see the economy go in a different direction."
Ginny Lewis, a Democrat and 72-year-old retired district attorney from Princeton, Ky., says she'll vote for Romney because "I'm tired of the Republicans blaming all the debt on Democrats, so let them take over and see what they do."
Not that she's optimistic about how that will turn out, though. "I think things will get worse before they get better," she said.
Lindsey Hornbaker, a 25-year-old graduate student and nanny, hasn't been swayed by Romney's charm offensive.
Hornbaker, interviewed Wednesday in Davenport, Iowa, where she was attending an Obama rally, said Romney can tweak his tone but not what she sees as a record focused far more on top income earners and out of touch with most working families.
"I heard him go out of his way to sound so moderate during the debate," she said. "And I thought: `Who is this? Where did this come from?' He may sound like he's focused on the middle class. But where's the record?"
As the election nears, Romney has been playing down social issues and trying to project a more moderate stance on matters such as abortion in an effort to court female voters. The AP-GfK poll, taken Friday through Tuesday, shows Romney pulling even with Obama among women at 47-47 after lagging by 16 points among women a month earlier.
But now his campaign is grappling with the fallout from a comment by a Romney-endorsed Senate candidate in Indiana, who said that when a woman becomes pregnant during a rape "that's something God intended."
Romney quickly distanced himself from the remark by Republican Richard Mourdock.
But Obama was happy to keep the matter current, telling a crowd in Florida on Thursday: "As we saw again this week, I don't think any politician in Washington, most of whom are male, should be making health care decisions for women," Obama said. "Women can make those decisions themselves."
A renewed focus on social issues would be an unwelcome development for Romney: Among female likely voters, 55 percent say Obama would make the right decisions on women's issues, compared with 41 percent who think Romney would.
Romney's pitch to women has been focused squarely on the economy, making the case that what women want most is to ensure their families and their country are on a solid financial footing. The poll shows that message appears to be taking root.
A month ago, women favored Obama over Romney on the economy 56 percent to 40 percent.
Similarly, Obama's lead among women as the candidate who better understands the people's problems has narrowed considerably, from a 58-36 Obama advantage last month to a 50-43 Obama edge now.
Obama, meanwhile, has been working to shore up his support among men, who tend to be
more Republican than women. In the 2008 election, men broke 49 percent for Obama to 48 percent for John McCain, even though Obama got 53 percent of the vote overall. The president's job approval ratings among men have tended to fall below his ratings among women throughout his first term.
A month ago, Romney's advantage among men was 13 percentage points. Now, it's down to 5 points, with most of the shift toward Obama coming among unmarried men.
Obama's election chances hinge on turning out voters like Jon Gerton, a disabled construction worker from Jonesboro, Ark. Gerton's a staunch Obama supporter -- but he didn't vote in 2008.
"It takes longer than four years to get things to the point where things are going better," Gerton said. "Four years, it's not very long."
There has been a gender gap in every presidential election since 1980. In 2008, women were 7 percentage points more likely than men to vote for Obama.
Count Chrysta Walker, of Cedar Lake, Ind., among the voters who are sticking with Obama because they think he's got the right solutions for the fragile economy.
"He's got the middle class at heart," says the 58-year-old Walker. On the economy, she says, Obama "did as well as could be expected because he didn't get a lot of cooperation."
David Bierwirth, who owns an autograph sales business in Las Vegas, turned out at a Romney rally in Henderson this week to show his support for the GOP nominee. To Bierwirth, his vote for Romney is all about the economy.
"I want people back to work," he says, "because then they will buy my products."
The Associated Press-GfK poll was conducted Oct. 19-23 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,186 adults nationwide, including 839 likely voters. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; for likely voters it is 4.2 points.