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“More than 9 in 10 U.S. registered voters say the economy is extremely (45 percent) or very important (47 percent) to their vote in this year’s presidential election,” Gallup reported Wednesday.

“Unemployment, the federal budget deficit and the 2010 health care law also rank near the top of the list of nine issues tested” in a Feb. 16-19 USA Today/Gallup poll.

“Voters rate social issues such as abortion and gay marriage” - among the issues that Mr. Santorum has made the centerpiece of his campaign - “as the least important,” Gallup said.

Terrorism and national security, taxes, and the gap between rich and poor also rank higher than social issues, which fell to the bottom of Gallup’s survey with 15 percent rating them “extremely important” and 23 percent “very important.”

Mr. Santorum has been emphasizing these issues in his campaign remarks in the past few weeks in an appeal to the large evangelical vote that plays a heavy role in GOP elections. But Gallup’s poll numbers show that economic issues not only rank at the top of voter concerns but also rank high among all party groups, “with roughly 9 in 10 Democrats, independents and Republicans rating it as extremely or very important to their vote.”

That spells bad news for Mr. Obama if the economy does not significantly improve in the months ahead. There are, to be sure, indications of some economic gains here and there: the decline in jobless benefits in recent weeks, a rally in the stock market and an uptick in monthly job-creation numbers.

But thus far, none of that has resulted in any significant movement in Mr. Obama’s job scores. Gallup’s national daily surveys put his job-approval rating at a dismal 46 percent Thursday, with 49 percent disapproving.

In its “trial heat” head-to-head matchup polls among the two front-runners for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney led Mr. Obama by 50 percent to 46 percent. The president barely edged Mr. Santorum by a razor-thin 49 percent to 48 percent.

These numbers show that Mr. Obama has a long way to go if he is to convince a majority of Americans they are a better off today than they were before his presidency.

With Mr. Obama’s bloated budget turning in its fourth trillion-dollar-plus deficit, gas prices soaring to $4 a gallon and high unemployment as far as the eye can see, that’s a very hard sale to make.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.