The Washington Times - October 3, 2012, 09:38AM

Ahead of Wednesday night’s presidential debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, new polls show the national race between the two men tightening slightly and Mr. Romney chipping away at Mr. Obama’s leads in Florida and Virginia, while the president still maintains a significant lead in Ohio.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll among likely voters nationwide gives Mr. Obama a 3-point edge, at 49 percent to 46 percent — within the margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. Mr. Obama led by 5 points, 50 percent to 45 percent, in a poll from two weeks ago after the Democrats and Republicans held their national political conventions.

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Among registered voters, Mr. Obama leads by 7 points, 51 percent to 44 percent. Mr. Obama also holds a 5-point lead among registered voters, 48 percent to 43 percent, when Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and, among Virginia voters only, Constitution Party candidate and former Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode were presented as options. Mr. Johnson takes 3 percent of the vote and Ms. Stein takes 2 percent.

Among registered voters, Mr. Obama’s approval rating was essentially unchanged from the previous poll — 49 percent approve and 48 percent disapprove, compared with a 50 percent-48 percent split two weeks ago. And voters, by a 3-point, 40 percent to 37 percent margin, say the country is worse off since Mr. Obama became president. On the all-important question of who would handle the economy better over the next four years, Mr. Romney retains a slight edge, at 43 percent to 42 percent.

But 48 percent say Mr. Obama is better prepared to lead the country for the next four years, compared with 35 percent who think the same for Mr. Romney. A plurality of voters also hold an optimistic view of how the economy will perform over the next 12 months. Forty-four percent think the nation’s economy will get better over the next year, 13 percent say it will get worse, and 35 percent say it will stay about the same. Fifty-seven percent think the economy is recovering, compared with 39 percent who say it is not recovering.

The heightened focus on the first presidential debate this week notwithstanding, 62 percent say the presidential debates will be “just somewhat” or “not at all” important in helping decide who to support for president.

Thirty-eight percent say the debates are “extremely” or “quite” important in that regard.

Forty-six percent disapprove of the way Mr. Obama is handling the current situation in Egypt, Libya and the Middle East, while 45 percent approve.

Forty-five percent of registered voters identified themselves as either strong Democrats, “not very strong” Democrats, or independent/lean Democrat. Thirty-nine percent identified themselves as strong Republican, “not very strong Republican” or independent/lean Republican. Fourteen percent were “strictly independent.”

The margin of error for 1,000 interviews among registered voters is 3.1 percentage points, and the margin is 3.4 percentage points among 832 likely voters. The poll was conducted from Sept. 26 to 30.

Meanwhile, in the all-important swing states of Florida and Virginia, Mr. Romney has seen his standing tick up from mid-September in new NBC News/Marist/Wall Street Journal polls. Mr. Obama holds statistically insignificant leads of 1 point and 2 points, respectively: 47 percent to 46 percent in Florida and 48 percent to 46 percent in Virginia. In the previous polls, he held identical 5-point leads, 49 percent to 44 percent, in both states.

Ohio, though — at least in public polling — continues to appear as a potential firewall for Mr. Obama. He holds an 8-point lead, 51 percent to 43 percent in the Buckeye State — essentially unchanged from a 7-point lead in mid-Septmber at 50 percent to 43 percent.

The polls in the three states were conducted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1. The margins of error are 3.3 percentage points in Florida, 3.1 percentage points in Virginia, and 3.2 percent points in Ohio.