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Obama expands lead over Romney, new poll shows

President Obama

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President Obama spoke at a National Prayer Breakfast last week in Washington.

President Obama has opened his strongest lead yet against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the Washington Post-ABC News poll released today.

Obama would beat Romney among registered voters nationally, 51 percent to 45 percent, according to the poll. The Democrat would have an even stronger lead - 54 percent to 43 percent – if the Republican nominee were former House speaker Newt Gingrich. This is the first Washington Post poll in which Obama has been above 50 percent among registered voters in a head-to-head match-up with Romney.

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About 53 percent of voters believe Obama better understands the economic problems they face, compared with 36 percent for Romney. A slim majority of respondents believe Romney will do a better job handling the economy and the federal budget deficit. They are split on which candidate will best create jobs. But they believe Obama will do a better job handling terrorism, international affairs, and taxes, as well as protecting the middle class.

The poll put Obama’s approval rating at 50 percent, the highest in several months. Obama has been helped by recent signs of a stronger economy, though a majority of voters still disapprove of his handling of the economy, job creation, and the federal budget deficit.

With the GOP presidential primary turning increasingly negative, voters are not happy with what they are hearing from the candidates. Just 36 percent of respondents approved of what they said, with 54 percent disapproving.

The poll also showed that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is most likely to be the Republican nominee. He has opened a 14-point lead over Gingrich among GOP-leaning voters nationally, 38 percent to 24 percent. Voters said they trust Romney more than Gingrich to handle the economy. By a large margin, voters judged Romney to be the Republican candidate most likely to beat Obama in the general election.

However, there were danger signs for Romney. More than half (52 percent) of voters said they liked Romney less the more they heard about him. (Sixty percent said the same about Gingrich.) Voters said that as a corporate investor, Romney did more to cut jobs than to create them. And 60 percent thought Romney had not paid his fair share in taxes. (The question noted that Romney paid a 14 percent effective tax rate on an income of $22 million.)

The poll of 1,000 adults was conducted Feb. 1-4 and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.
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