WASHINGTON Months into a bruising primary campaign, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney is still neck and neck with President Barack Obama in a hypothetical general election matchup, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.
Obama leads Romney 46-44 percent, suggesting a country that remains closely divided between the major parties, unwilling to rally to the Democratic incumbent and refusing to cast aside the front-runner for the Republican nomination after a dark hour of attacks and sniping inside his party.
Rick Santorum, the other major GOP candidate, remains close to Obama as well. The poll finds the president leading him 48-43 percent in a possible fall matchup.
A key reason they're both close: Each edges the president among independent voters by one point. Another: The president, while enjoying an uptick of support on his handling of the economy and foreign affairs, nevertheless has the overall job approval of less than half of American voters at 48 percent, with 47 percent disapproving and 5 percent unsure.
He fares a tad better when voters were asked whether they have favorable or unfavorable impressions of him: Fifty percent are favorable, 46 percent unfavorable and 3 percent unsure.
"We've come through a very divisive primary season, but the presidential matchups between Obama and Romney are pretty much where we were when this started," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll.
"That's driven by where Obama is. The president's approval is defining the landscape."
Among other findings: Romney leads the Republican field for the nomination. He leads Santorum in a two-man race if Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul drop out. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would bring more to a Romney ticket than Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American even among Latino voters.
Overall, voters give the president improving marks this spring on some key issues.
On the economy, 46 percent approve of his performance and 51 percent disapprove, his best showing since June 2010. On foreign policy, 50 percent approve the highest since June 2009 while 45 percent disapprove.
On another key barometer, 43 percent of adults say the country is headed in the right direction, while 53 percent say it's going the wrong way. That's also the best score in two years.
Among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, Romney leads for the nomination with scant evidence that Santorum can catch up.
The poll found that Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, was supported by 39 percent, former Sen. Santorum of Pennsylvania by 31 percent, former House Speaker Gingrich by 13 percent and Rep. Paul of Texas by 13 percent.
Romney also leads a two-way race with Santorum by 50-44 percent a sign that Santorum wouldn't pull ahead even if Gingrich dropped out.