Obama Bolstered By Republican Fight, Economic Gains

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.

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."

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.

Read more from John Whitesides and Jeff Mason at Reuters

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Ron Paul Gains Ground, Further Stirring Republicans

U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul declared on Wednesday his campaign was "peaking at the right time" as polls show him closing in on the two perceived front-runners.

The libertarian congressman from Texas with a passionate core of followers complained that pundits were dismissing his longshot campaign prematurely and sounded optimistic about catching former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former U.S. House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich.

All three and others are seeking to represent the Republicans and unseat Democratic President Barack Obama next November. The first of a series of Republican nominating contests is set for Jan. 3 in Iowa.

"The momentum is building up and a lot of the candidates so far would come and go. They would shoot to the top and drop back rapidly. Ours has been very steady growth, then in this last week or two there has been a sudden extra growth," Paul told reporters after meeting voters in Amherst, New Hampshire.

Public Policy Polling released a survey on Tuesday showing him one percentage point behind Gingrich for the lead in Iowa.

Paul took 21 percent in the survey compared to 22 percent for Gingrich with Romney third at 16 percent.

"In political terms, it probably means we're peaking at the right time," Paul said.

Paul, who is making his third bid for the White House, is unlikely to take the nomination. But he may influence the race all the way to the end, acquiring delegates that stand to give him clout at the party's nominating convention next August.

He could tilt the nomination to one candidate should the race remain undecided by convention time.

"He definitely takes more from Gingrich than he does from Romney," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist who said he is neutral in the nominating process. "He's doing to Newt Gingrich what Romney hasn't been able to do. In a lot of ways he's Newt Gingrich's worst nightmare."

Read more from Daniel Trotta at Reuters

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Ford O'Connell At Politico's Arena: Can Ron Paul Take A Punch?

Ron Paul will not win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, so it really doesn't matter if he can take a punch. That said, if Paul does win the Iowa nominating contest, he could be Gingrich's worst nightmare and an unlikely ally for Team Romney in its quest to lock down the Republican nomination.

Read more from Ford O'Connell at Politico's "The Arena"

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Which 2012 Presidential Swing States Are Most Up For Grabs?

Things can always change, and between now and Election Day 2012 they will several times over. But I have to hand it to Fox News' Chris Stirewalt, his current presidential swing state analysis is on the mark. Of course, much of this depends on the state of the economy on Election Day 2012 and who GOP primary voters nominate as the party's standard-bearer. Note: I am fairly certain that New Mexico will go for Obama, at least for now.

While Obama continues to tie or lead national polls, his performance in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin matters more. And there, things are not so good for the incumbent.

Obama won all 12 of the swing states in 2008, but how many of them will he win again?

He has structural advantages and history on his side in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (though all three states skewed heavily Republican statewide in 2010). Polls and electoral trends suggest the president is unlikely to prevail in Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

That leaves Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia as the swingingest swing states and Obama trailing in electoral votes 245 to 242 with 51 up for grabs. And there, team Obama will be counting on the most expensive, aggressive and negative re-election campaign ever waged.

And that’s where there’s real trouble in the poll for Obama in this poll.

Since 2008, swing state voters have become 9 percent less Democratic. When Obama won the swing states by 8 points, Democrats boasted an 11-point party identification edge. Now it’s down to 2-points.

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Obama's Five-Fold Path To 270 Electoral Votes

Four more years of President Barack Obama is certainly not ideal. That said, it is important to take a critical but objective look at the 2012 electoral map. The Washington Post's Chris Cilliza and Aaron Blake do a solid job of analyizing the swing state landscape.

Note: I am not sure Obama is going to win New Hampshire and it's four electoral voters, particularly if former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wins the GOP presidential nomination. Additionally, the "Expansion Path" is most unlikely of the five scenarios put forward by The Fix duo.

One important point before we start: The Obama team used as its baseline for each of these five scenarios the 246 electoral votes that Massachusetts Sen.John Kerry (D) won in his 2004 loss to President George W. Bush. That means that Obama could lose none of the states he and Kerry carried in 2004 and 2008 — including swing states like New Hampshire and Wisconsin — and have the numbers add up. The paths are ranked from most likely to least likely for Obama.

1. Florida path: If Obama wins the 29 electoral votes in Florida, he’s at 275 and a winner.

2. West Path: This scenario requires Obama to sweep Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada and then also take Iowa, where he won overwhelmingly in 2008 but Kerry lost narrowly in 2004. (Add those four states up, and Obama is at 272 electoral votes.)

3. Midwest path: The industrial Midwest has turned against Democrats in a major way since Obama carried every state in the so-called Rust Belt three years ago. But, if Obama wins only Ohio and Iowa, he’s at 270 electoral votes and a winner — albeit by the thinnest margin possible.

4. South path: In 2008, Obama was the first Democrat to carry North Carolina since 1976 and to win in Virginia since 1964. If he repeats that feat in 2012, he gets to 274 electoral votes.

5. Expansion path: Three years ago, Democrats were confident that they would have won Arizona had Republicans not nominated homestate Sen. John McCain. And, with no prospect of an Arizonan on the national ticket this time around — sorry Jan Brewer— the Obama team sees the possibility of turning Arizona blue.

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Control Of U.S. Senate Likely Hinges On 2012 Presidential Swing States

The eventual 2012 Repubican presidential nominee is very likely to influence which party control the U.S. Senate after 2012. Famed political prognosticator Stuart Rothenberg weighs in:

If, as many believe, we have entered a new era of parliamentary-type voting, when ticket-splitting becomes increasingly rare and the top of the ticket defines downballot choices for most voters, six of those 12 contests start to take on a more partisan tinge.

President Barack Obama is likely to carry Hawaii and Massachusetts comfortably, giving a leg up for his party’s Senate nominees in each state — Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and probably Rep. Mazie Hirono (but possibly ex-Rep. Ed Case) in Hawaii.

On the other hand, the president’s weakness in a number of other states presumably would give an advantage to the likely Republican Senate nominees in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Yes, I know, none of this is certain. Voters still know how to split their tickets, and if Massachusetts voters simply never warm to Warren or Democratic incumbents in Missouri, Montana and Nebraska succeed in localizing their races, Obama’s standing in any of these states may not determine who will win the Senate contest.

It is at least worth noting, however, that Democrats make the partisanship argument when they are handicapping their chances of winning the Hawaii and Massachusetts Senate contests, and Republicans make the exact same argument when handicapping Senate races in states that the president is likely to lose badly.

Adding up the gains and losses from the six states with a clear bent in the presidential contest would give Senate Republicans a net gain of three seats, enough to win control if the GOP presidential nominee wins next year as well, but a seat shy of a clear majority, and control, if Obama wins a second term.

So, the battle for the Senate could well boil down to six states which are also at ground zero in the 2012 presidential race: Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Five of those Senate seats, all but Nevada, are currently held by Democrats. At this point, Democrats seem to have an edge in three of those contests.

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Ron Paul On The Rise In Iowa

From Democratic Polling Firm Public Policy Polling (PPP):

There has been some major movement in the Republican Presidential race in Iowa over the last week, with what was a 9 point lead for Newt Gingrich now all the way down to a single point. Gingrich is at 22% to 21% for Paul with Mitt Romney at 16%, Michele Bachmann at 11%, Rick Perry at 9%, Rick Santorum at 8%, Jon Huntsman at 5%, and Gary Johnson at 1%.

Gingrich has dropped 5 points in the last week and he's also seen a significant decline in his favorability numbers. Last week he was at +31 (62/31) and he's now dropped 19 points to +12 (52/40). The attacks on him appear to be taking a heavy toll- his support with Tea Party voters has declined from 35% to 24%.

Paul meanwhile has seen a big increase in his popularity from +14 (52/38) to +30 (61/31).  There are a lot of parallels between Paul's strength in Iowa and Barack Obama's in 2008 - he's doing well with new voters, young voters, and non-Republican voters.

Paul's supporters are considerably more committed to him than Gingrich's are.  77% of current Paul voters say they're definitely going to vote for him, compared to only 54% for Gingrich.  Romney has much more solid support than Gingrich as well, 67% of his voters saying they're with him for the long haul. Among only voters who say their mind's totally made up, 29% support Paul to 21% for Gingrich, 18% for Romney, and 11% for Bachmann.

PPP surveyed 555 likely Republican caucus voters from December 11th to 13th. The margin of error for the survey is +/-4.2%.

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Presidential Enthusiasm Gap Swings To GOP But Swing State Independents Will Be Key

The vast enthusiasm gap that swept President Barack Obama into office in 2008 is turning against him. The key for the enventual Republican presidential nominee will be to capture independents in the 2012 swing states. USA Today's Susan Page has more:

[T]he "enthusiasm gap" that helped fuel a Democratic victory last time has turned into a Republican asset. Sixty-one percent of Republicans say they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting for president next year, compared with 47% of Democrats.

Among the most enthusiastic are some of the GOP's core voters: conservatives, middle-aged men and those 50 to 64 years old. Those who are least enthused include core Democratic groups that were critical to Obama's election in 2008, including minorities and younger voters.

In swing states, Obama trails former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney among registered voters by 5 points, 43% vs. 48%, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich by 3, 45% vs. 48%.

This is the second in a series of surveys that USA TODAY and Gallup will be taking through the 2012 campaign focused on 12 swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Most other states and the District of Columbia are all but guaranteed to be won by one party or the other, giving Obama a likely base of 196 electoral votes and the Republican nominee a base of 191. A candidate needs 270 to win the White House.

The decline in the number of voters who identify themselves as Democrats — and the rise in those who call themselves independents — complicates the president's re-election strategy.

In the swing states, the number of self-identified Democrats (not including those who lean Democratic) fell from 35% to 30% since 2008. The number of independents rose 7 points, 35% to 42%.

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Is Romney 2012: The Hillary Clinton Of 2008?

From the outset, Mitt Romney has been the front-runner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Now the former Massachusetts Governor finds himself entangled in a real dog fight with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Could Romney trip like Hilary Clinton did in 2008? Politico's Ben Smith and Maggie Haberman weigh in:

For Mitt Romney this December, it’s beginning to look a lot like Clinton.

Like the great, fallen front-runner of 2008, here is another well-funded, Establishment-blessed, presumptive nominee whose supposedly firm hold on his party’s greatest prize seems to be slip-sliding away.

There are differences to be sure, most centrally that Romney has yet to face a Barack Obama-like, central foe (though Newt Gingrich is now auditioning convincingly for that role) but instead has fought a series of rear-guard actions against a series of candidates-of-the-moment.

But the similarities, particularly to veterans of Hillaryland circa 2008, are remarkable.

Romney may have had to fight off frontal assaults from a series of foes - Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and now Gingrich - but he has not had to counter what the Clinton team came to view as the Kennedyesque, once-in-a-generation political skills of Obama.

Romney may well be the Clinton of 2012 – but allies argue that Clinton would have beaten a candidate with Gingrich’s organization, a boast that may bode well for the former Massachusetts governor.

“What failed for Hillary still might work for Mitt,” said one former Clinton supporter. “The GOP race in 2012 is far more volatile, and Gingrich is especially prone to self-destruction, so Mitt’s ‘Last Man Standing’ strategy might work. There was never a realistic chance that Obama would self-destruct: nothing in his record or rhetoric or background or temperament. Newt is the opposite.”

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Romney: Gingrich Is GOP Presidential Front-Runner

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is invoking a new campaign tactic - he is portraying himself as the underdog in the battle for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Politico's Mike Allen has more:

Mitt Romney, who just a month ago had hoped to seal the GOP presidential nomination with Florida’s primary on Jan. 31, tells POLITICO that he now foresees an epic fight with Newt Gingrich that could last through the California primary on June 5.

Asked if the former House speaker is the front-runner, Romney replied bluntly: “He is right now.”

Romney made it clear that he would rather lose than make incendiary charges about Gingrich that could help President Barack Obama in the general election. And the former Massachusetts governor said the nomination “is not going to be decided in just a couple of contests” and “could go for months and months.”

“It’s a very fluid electorate. I think I’ll get the nomination. I can’t predict when. … I’ve got — what? — five or six more months to go to make that a reality.”

Romney said he thinks he “would be more successful in posting up against Barack Obama” than Gingrich, but did not rule out the possibility that Gingrich could beat Obama.

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