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Poll: In 2012 swing states, Obama is tied with Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich

Jennifer Skalka TulumelloThe Christian Science Monitor

When Republicans determine their party's nominee next year and when President Obama hits the campaign trail in earnest, all eyes will turn to those critical swing states that catapulted the Democrat to victory in 2008. Only this time, according to a survey released Monday, the "Yes We Can" candidate has lost his luster from Florida to Ohio, Nevada to New Hampshire.

“Overall, there’s no question that the Obama campaign should be very worried looking at these numbers,” says Doug Usher, managing director of the bipartisan firm Purple Insights, which examined voter views in the dozen states likely to determine Mr. Obama’s reelection prospects.

The aptly named Purple Poll reveals a president with sagging approval numbers – 41 percent across these states – and an overwhelming sense among these voters – 71 percent – that the country is moving in the wrong direction.

The survey, conducted Nov. 13-17, also shows Obama is deadlocked against Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, with 45 percent of the vote each in those states. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich surges, he, too, shows well against the White House incumbent; Obama leads Mr. Gingrich 46 percent to 44 percent. Gingrich has benefited from his turn in the media spotlight as the latest possible alternative to Mr. Romney, Mr. Usher says, but it’s unclear as yet if Gingrich will survive the glare to mount a strong primary challenge.

(A new national Gallup poll of registered Republican likely voters shows Gingrich edging Romney, 22 percent to 21 percent – within the four percentage point margin of error.)

Also not to be missed in the Purple Poll numbers is this: For all the gnashing about Romney’s lack of appeal to the base and the general enthusiasm deficit he faces (his unfavorable ratings continue to increase), just 10 percent of swing state voters say they would definitely not support him. By comparison, 22 percent say the same of former Godfather’s Pizza chief Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, while 15 percent weigh in with a definitive "no" for Gingrich.

The poll of 1,436 likely voters focuses on Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Obama won all of them in defeating the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in 2008. Since 1996, according to Purple Insights, nine of these states have shifted between the parties, and three – Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – have been determined by margins of three points or less.

Usher says the 2012 contest is shaping up like another recent battle.

“There are a lot of ways that this is mirroring the 2004 Democratic campaign,” he says, when voters flirted with contenders Howard Dean and John Edwards before settling on the establishment candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Remember “Dated Dean, married Kerry”? This year, GOP voters might insert “Dated Cain” or “Dated Perry” or “Dated Gingrich.” But because he shows best against Obama in swing state territory, Romney might be the one GOP voters ultimately marry, Usher says.

Usher also notes that Obama’s fundamentals are weaker than President George W. Bush’s were in his 2004 reelection bid. Mr. Bush is remembered as deeply unpopular, but in the run-up to that contest, his national job approval ratings tracked more closely to the 50 percent mark than Obama’s are at the moment.

Meanwhile, one notable outcome of the uncertainty in Purple America is that it’s ripe for mining for an eventual GOP running mate – no matter the nominee.

Think Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Or, Usher suggests, should Romney prevail, someone from Virginia.

“I’d think a Bob McDonnell of Virginia would be a no-brainer,” Usher says of the Republican governor elected in 2009 and term-limited by law. “He’s very popular; it’s a swing state. He’s a rock-ribbed conservative who is doing well in a state that’s trending more Democratic.”