Continued from page 1

After months of asserting that conditions under Mr. Obama have worsened, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney acknowledged signs of improvement, but gave Mr. Obama no credit.

“I think the economy’s getting better. I sure hope so,” Mr. Romney told CNN on Wednesday. “There’s never been a time when our economy has not recovered from recession. We will recover, but it will not be thanks to the president’s policies. It will be in spite of the president’s policies.”

Republican pollster Wes Anderson, a veteran of congressional and presidential contests, says the first quarter of 2012 could lay down crucial markers that could affect the election results.

“If the uptick in economic indicators that we’ve seen here this month continues into the next month at the same general pace, it will be an interesting race and it will be very close, and there will be an opportunity for Obama to win,” he said. “If economic conditions deteriorate at all, I think he’s done.

“If they pick up significantly in the first quarter — I don’t know what that is, but something that is tangible for middle-class America — he probably gets re-elected,” Mr. Anderson said.

The White House is ready to have the president maintain a high economic profile, showcasing his bailout of the auto industry as a concrete example of an administration policy that saved jobs. Beyond that, Mr. Obama’s team wants to portray the president as a champion of the middle class.

“The battle is really over the long term because the Republicans have a fundamental theory that we can cut our way to prosperity — cut taxes for the wealthy, cut regulations, especially for Wall Street, and the economy will flourish,” Mr. Axelrod said. “We’ve tested that theory and it failed. Badly.”