By Susan Page, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Despite concerted Democratic attacks on his business record, Republican challenger Mitt Romney scores a significant advantage over President Obama when it comes to managing the economy, reducing the federal budget deficit and creating jobs, a national USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.
By more than 2-1, 63%-29%, those surveyed say Romney's background in business, including his tenure at the private equity firm Bain Capital, would cause him to make good decisions, not bad ones, in dealing with the nation's economic problems over the next four years.
The findings raise questions about Obama's strategy of targeting Bain's record in outsourcing jobs and hammering Romney for refusing to commit to releasing more than two years of his tax returns. Instead, Americans seem focused on the economy, where disappointment with the fragile recovery and the 8.2% unemployment rate are costing the president.
To be sure, Obama retains significant advantages of his own. By 2-1, he's rated as more likable than Romney. By double digits, those surveyed say the president better understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives. He has an 8-point advantage on being seen as honest and trustworthy.
However, Romney has the edge when it comes to being able to "get things done," and the broad landscape seems tilted in his favor:
•Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are much more enthusiastic about the election, an important factor in persuading supporters to vote. By 18 points, 51%-33%, they report being more enthusiastic than usual about voting. In contrast, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents by 4 points say they are less enthusiastic than usual, 43%-39%.
•A record number of Americans express skepticism about the activist role of government Obama espouses; 61% say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. That's the highest number since Gallup began asking the question in 1992.
•The Democratic attacks on Romney seem to have had little effect on voters' assessments of him. In February, 53% said the former Massachusetts governor had the personality and leadership qualities a president should have; now 54% do. Then, 42% said they agreed with Romney on the issues that mattered most to them; now 45% do.
The poll of 1,030 adults Thursday through Sunday has a margin of error of plus- or minus-4 percentage points.
"You've got to give the voters credit - economic reality trumps campaign rhetoric," says Romney pollster Neil Newhouse. "It's pretty clear that the negative weight of the economy is having more impact on voters than President Obama's campaign ads distorting Gov. Romney's record."
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, notes that a recent ABC/Washington Post poll and other surveys have shown the Bain attacks hurting Romney's credibility on the economy, and he predicts the Democratic arguments will do more damage.
"While Mitt Romney has claimed for the past year that he knows how to create jobs because he did it as a corporate buyout specialist, Americans are just now learning about his real record - that he profited off of bankrupting companies and outsourcing jobs," LaBolt says. "That's not an economic philosophy they want to see in the Oval Office, and the more they are learning about his record, the less supportive they are."
Their contest is close: 57% say Obama has the personality and leadership qualities a president should have; 54% say that of Romney. Forty-seven percent say they agree with Obama on the issues that matter most to them; 45% say that of Romney.
In the separate Gallup tracking poll, the race stands at 46% Obama, 45% Romney.
Despite the negative ads being aired by both sides, a majority of Americans say neither candidate has been attacked unfairly. In the USA TODAY poll, 36% (mostly Democrats) say Romney has been attacking the president unfairly; 38% (mostly Republicans) say Obama has been attacking Romney unfairly.