By CHARLES BABINGTON and THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans are growing more optimistic about the economy and President Barack Obama's leadership, creating a significant obstacle for Republican rival Mitt Romney five weeks to Election Day.
Even with unemployment above 8 percent for a 43rd straight month, polls find voters taking comfort in modest signs of economic progress, from a solid jump in consumer confidence this month to steady gains in home prices. Surveys show Obama opening up leads over Romney in several key states, thanks to voters such as Jim Young, 62, a retired engineer from eastern Iowa.
A political independent, Young says Obama's policies have eased the nation's pain as the recovery plods along. "The markets have been doing quite well," Young said. "So, personally, things are going well and we can't complain."
Interviews with voters in vital swing states and opinion polls suggest Romney inadvertently played into Democrats' long-running efforts to paint him as an out-of-touch plutocrat when a secretly recorded video showed him saying 47 percent of Americans consider themselves victims who depend on government care.
"Romney seems fake, especially after the 47 percent comment," said Kurtis Nash of Cincinnati. "I've always voted for Republicans," he said, but now he's leaning toward Obama.
"I think Obama understands the importance of a strong middle class and he wants to do more to build the middle class," said Nash, 33, a chef at a downtown restaurant. "Maybe he didn't at first, but I think he does now."
Whether the video played a big role or not, Obama is leading in polls in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere. Romney's backers are struggling to change the momentum in a race shaped in large part by voters' perception of the economy and their overall view of who would do a better job for the middle class.
"Sometimes there is a tipping point in politics where the cumulative effect of several things — and one singular defining event — can flip voters in one direction," said Republican pollster Steve Lombardo. "I think that was what did happen with '47 percent.' It came after two bad weeks for Romney and crystallized voter perceptions, driven by negative ads, that he only cares about rich people."
Such happenings, Lombardo said, are "lethal in politics."
Obama aides are quick to note that the election is far from over, and any number of unforeseen events could shift the tide. The Romney team hopes Wednesday's presidential debate in Denver — the first of three in October — will enable the former Massachusetts governor to alter the campaign's dynamics.
Analysts in both parties point to several likely reasons for Obama's leap in the swing state polls, including:
— Rising economic optimism.
From the start, Romney said voters should fire Obama chiefly for his handling of the economy. But Americans are feeling somewhat better about the economy, and less inclined to see Romney as the needed fixer.
Associated Press-GfK polls conducted in May and June showed voters about evenly divided between Obama and Romney on the question "who do you trust to do a better job handling the economy." Romney held a narrow edge in August.
But a September survey showed Obama opening up a clear lead on the question, 50 percent to Romney's 43 percent. Among those voters most likely to turn out, who were first measured in September, the two candidates were about even.
The latest poll also showed more adults approving rather than disapproving of Obama's handling of the economy, for the first time in more than a year.
Meanwhile, consumer confidence rose to its highest level since February, the government reported. And the median price of homes sold last month increased by a record amount as mortgage rates remain at an all-time low. The once underwater housing market is showing signs of a modest recovery.
A Washington Post poll of Ohio and Florida voters found more confidence in an economic rebound under Obama than under Romney.
— Romney's struggle to connect with voters.
Romney, who made millions of dollars heading the private equity firm Bain Capital, has never had a breezy rapport with voters. But Democrats — and some GOP rivals during the primary — have worked to portray him as something worse: an unfeeling "vulture capitalist" who doesn't mind laying off workers to increase profits.