A new poll shows that if Republicans want to nominate the candidate most likely to beat President Obama in 2012, they should pick Mitt Romney—at least if the election were held tomorrow.
But the survey also finds that businessman Herman Cain still leads the former Massachusetts governor among Republican voters,despite being plagued by sexual harassment allegations.
The poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in three crucial swing states – Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania – shows Romney running neck-and-neck with Obama.
"President Obama and Mitt Romney essentially are in statistical dead heats in the three states," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, during a press conference in Washington.
Obama leads hypothetical match-ups with Republican candidates Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich by double-digits, according to the polling.
In Pennsylvania, for example, Obama leads Romney 44 percent to 43 percent in a head-to-head match-up. But he tops Cain 48 percent to 38 percent when voters were asked to pick between the two. Obama won Pennsylvania in 2008 over Republican nominee John McCain by 11 percentage points.
"Romney is clearly at this point the strongest of the potential Republican candidates for the general election," he said. "But again, to get to the general election, you've got to get through the primary."
The Connecticut-based school polled more than 1,000 voters in each of the three states from Oct. 31 to Nov. 7.
Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania were selected as barometers for the 2012 outcome because since 1960, no president has been elected without carrying two of the three, Brown said.
In 2008, Obama won all three. But voter pessimism about the state of the economy is proving to be the Democrat's biggest obstacle to re-election.
"Romney is viewed as better able to handle the economy than is the president, that's a big deal," Brown said. "The economy is by far the most important issue to voters. Seven in 10 voters say health care or the economy is the most important issue facing them."
Even if the United States is not technically in a recession anymore, voters still feel like it is and that perception is all that matters in elections, Brown said.
Still, Ronald Reagan was able to overcome a dismal 35 percent job approval rating in the year before the 1984 election to win "the greatest landslide in American political history," he said. But he was assisted by a perceptibly improving economy, Brown added.
But whether or not Republicans rally around Romney remains unanswered.
The former Massachusetts governor leads Cain among all voters in the three states when asked how comfortable they are with the idea of each being in the Oval office. But Romney trails the former Godfather's Pizza CEO when it comes to who Republicans say they support for the GOP nomination.
In Florida, Cain leads Romney by a margin of 45 percent to 39 percent among Republicans. He leads Romney in Ohio with 25 percent compared to Romney's 20 percent. The two candidates are tied at 17 percent apiece in Pennsylvania.
The survey—which was conducted after initial sexual harassment allegations were reported but before a press conference was held by the first woman to go public with the charges—shows Cain performing poorly among women voters.
In Florida, 35 percent of male Republican voters support Cain versus 20 percent of women. The margin in Ohio is 31 percent support from men and 17 percent from women. In Pennsylvania, his support among men is 21 percent compared with 12 percent of women.