Mitt Romney has erased an 8-point deficit in the swing state of Virginia, which provided President Obama with one of his biggest victories in 2008 by supporting a Democratic candidate for the first time in more than four decades.
A poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac University shows Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney tied at 44 percent, with 8 percent undecided, 2 percent preferring another candidate, and 2 percent saying they wouldn't vote. That compares to a 50 percent to 42 percent advantage Mr. Obama enjoyed in March.
While independent voters tilt for the president, 40 percent to 38 percent, his advantage with women declined from 16 points last month to 5 points in July. Mr. Obama's favorability ratings also are underwater for the first time since December, with 46 percent holding a favorable opinion of him and 48 percent an unfavorable one.
Still, voters are not exactly lining up enthusiastically behind Mr. Romney, who has a 39-42 favorable-unfavorable split.
"One of them is going to win the White House, but neither would get elected Prom King," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The poll, conducted from July 10-16, surveyed 1,673 registered voters and has a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.
Pundits are now acknowledging that the electoral map this year could look vastly different from four years ago, when Mr. Obama expanded Democratic territory and was able to flip historically red states such as Virginia and North Carolina.
Rather, it could more closely mirror the 2004 election, when, like this year, an under-fire incumbent was fending off a challenger about whom the electorate was not terribly enthusiastic. In that race, President Bush defeated Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, by 286 Electoral College votes to 251.
If Mr. Obama holds on to the Kerry states, which now have 246 electoral votes, Virginia's 13 votes could clinch re-election for Mr. Obama even if he loses the other biggest swing states -- Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. Because New Mexico is trending toward Mr. Obama, the president could get to the required 270 electoral votes by winning just one of three other Bush states he flipped in 2008 -- Nevada, Colorado or Iowa.
"The president doesn't have to win Virginia to get elected, but there's a good chance Romney does," said Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic strategist who advised former Govs. L. Douglas Wilder and Mark R. Warner.
NPR also released a poll that gives Mr. Obama a 47 percent to 45 percent lead -- within the margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. But voters in 12 battleground states, which included Virginia, were split, with 46 percent favoring Mr. Obama, 46 percent favoring Mr. Romney and 3 percent undecided.
The poll of 1,000 likely voters was conducted from July 9-12 and had an oversample to reach 462 voters in the battlegrounds. That sample had a margin of error of 4.56 percentage points.
Other fresh polls also portend a close race nationally: Mr. Romney leads 47 percent to 46 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll, including voters leaning toward one candidate or the other. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, leads 45 percent to 41 percent in a Fox poll.
The new numbers were released as first lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to hit Virginia on Friday to launch a voter outreach program the campaign plans to take to other battleground states next week.
On July 13, at a campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., Mr. Obama uttered his now-infamous "If you've got a business, you didn't build that" line, making the point that other people or government services inevitably help along the way. Since then, however, Mr. Romney's campaign has turned the remark into a rallying cry to argue that Mr. Obama does not understand -- or care for -- the free enterprise system.
His campaign unveiled a Web ad Thursday titled "These Hands" that features Jack Gilchrist, the owner of Gilchrist Metal Fabricating Company in Hudson, N.H., where Mr. Romney stopped in January.
"My father's hands didn't build this company?" he asks with a touch of a New England accent. "My hands didn't build this company? My son's hands aren't building this company?"
The Obama campaign countered with its own online ad, titled "Mitt Romney: Saying Anything to Get Elected," which splices recent remarks from Mr. Romney with Mr. Obama's comments to argue that the challenger was essentially agreeing with the president's larger point.
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