Since President Obama's lackluster showing at the first debate two weeks ago, the race has tightened across the board, both in national surveys and where it matters most — in the 11 battleground states that will decide the election.
In every state still considered up for grabs Nov. 6, the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of polls shows Republican nominee Mitt Romney has gained ground on the president — and has taken the lead outright in Colorado, Florida and North Carolina.
"There's a sense that Romney is an acceptable alternative president right now," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. "A great many people did not view it that way before. That is critical for making this election a referendum on Obama's record."
The two men face off again Tuesday night at Hofstra University for their second debate, during which Mr. Obama will try to make up for what he said was an uneven performance the first go-around.
He also is hoping to tamp down the renewed enthusiasm for Mr. Romney, who voters said won the debate, which helped propel him to gains in the polls.
In Florida, where Mr. Obama held a lead of 3 percentage points before the first debate, Mr. Romney now leads by an average of 3 points in the RCP average. In North Carolina, host to the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Romney is pulling away with a lead of 5 points after being tied with the president on the day before the Oct. 3 debate.
In Virginia, where the president led consistently before the first debate by 2 to 8 percentage points in the RCP average of polls, his lead over Mr. Romney has shrunk since the debate to less than 1 percentage point.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the razor-thin margins in swing states are no surprise and that the campaign always has expected a tight race.
But the campaign moved swiftly to discredit a USA Today/Gallup survey released Monday that gave Mr. Romney a 5-point edge (51 percent to 46 percent) in 12 swing states, saying the poll also showed Mr. Romney tied with the president among women who are likely to vote — something the Obama camp said is impossible to believe.
Obama campaign pollster Joel Benenson said Gallup's survey was "an extreme outlier, defying the trends seen in every other battleground and national poll."
"This result underscores deep flaws in Gallup's likely-voter screen," Mr. Benenson said. "Gallup's data is once again far out of line with other public pollsters."
He said in 14 state polls conducted across eight swing states since Oct. 4, Mr. Obama led among women "in every single one."
The president's pollster argued that bias was built into the Gallup poll.
"For example, Gallup asks voters both whether they have voted in their precinct before and where people in their neighborhood go to vote," he said. "This creates a bias against registered voters, who are more likely to move from time to time, such as young voters, renters, minorities and urban dwellers, all of whom tend to lean toward the president."
Four years ago, Mr. Obama won among women by a 13-percent margin over Republican nominee John McCain.
The complaints about polls are a reversal from three weeks ago, when Republicans were complaining that surveys were skewed toward Mr. Obama. GOP pollsters said some polls were sampling a higher percentage of Democrats than they should have been.
Ms. Psaki said the polls are helping determine Mr. Obama's campaign schedule. After this week's debate, Mr. Obama will campaign in Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire and Virginia.
But the polls have turned in nearly every swing state. In Ohio, Mr. Obama's pre-debate lead of as much as 8 percentage points is down to about 2 points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. That same slippage has happened elsewhere across the industrial Midwest, including in Michigan, where a 10-point lead for Mr. Obama on Oct. 2 has slipped to 4 points, according to the RCP average.
As the campaign heads into the final three weeks, Mr. Obama sent a fundraising email to supporters Monday declaring, "This race is tied."
"What we do over the next 22 days will determine not just the next four years, but what this country looks like for decades to come," Mr. Obama said in his pitch for more donations.
One ominous development since the first debate has been a shift in Florida polls among Hispanic voters away from Mr. Obama. A Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 survey released Thursday had Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama in a virtual tie among that state's Hispanics, prompting a senior Obama adviser to comment on the same day, "That's an impossibility."
But a Florida International University/Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald poll released Monday also showed a tightening of the race among Hispanic voters in the Sunshine State, with Mr. Obama leading Mr. Romney 51 percent to 44 percent, just half the 15-point margin by which Mr. Obama won Florida Hispanics in 2008.
Nationally, the same survey showed Mr. Obama leading Mr. Romney 66 percent to 31 percent among Hispanics. Pollsters said the difference in Florida is the Cuban-American community, which is largely Republican and could be more enthused about Mr. Romney's performance in the first debate.
A Politico/George Washington University poll released Monday puts Mr. Romney in the lead, 50 percent to 48 percent, in the most competitive states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
But the president's top aides say he has leads in Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and other battleground states that Mr. Romney will be hard-pressed to overcome.
The candidates will debate for a third and final time on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.
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