DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Mitt Romney's first debate bounce has evaporated and President Obama once again has taken a slim lead in The Washington Times/Zogby Poll released Sunday night — though the survey showed Mr. Romney's backers are far more energized about him than the president's backers are about their candidate.
Mr. Obama leads 49.7 percent to 47.3 percent over Mr. Romney, the Republican nominee, with 3 percent undecided.
Just as striking, however, is that Mr. Obama's air of inevitability is slipping, with 49 percent saying they expect him to win re-election — the first time that number has dropped below 50 since August. Another 38 percent say Mr. Romney will win. That 11-point gap is down from 22 points two weeks ago and down from 27 points in late September.
Mr. Romney's backers are far more enthusiastic: 71 percent say they are backing him because he is the best candidate in the race. Among the president's supporters, 56 percent say he has earned re-election. The rest say they are backing Mr. Obama because he is a Democrat or because he is the "lesser of two evils."
"This is a mixed bag," said John Zogby, the pollster who conducted the survey. "The president has joined the American public in terms of anxiety and uncertainty over the next 21/2 weeks. No one knows, including him, whether he's going to keep this job or not."
Adding Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and other third-party candidates into the mix doesn't change the race much. Mr. Johnson collects 3 percent of the vote, and others get less — and Mr. Obama still leads Mr. Romney by 2 percentage points.
Mr. Obama was seen as the winner of last week's second presidential debate, 42 percent to 28 percent, over Mr. Romney, according to the 80 percent of likely voters who watched at least part of it. But the debate didn't move the needle much — about 6 percent said it swayed them toward Mr. Obama, and 7 percent said they moved toward Mr. Romney.
The third and final debate will be held Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., and will focus on foreign policy.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama took the weekend off from the campaign trail to practice. The president headed to Camp David, and Mr. Romney staked out space in Delray Beach, just north of Boca Raton, where he found time to officiate the coin toss for a beachfront football game between some of his staffers and a few reporters covering the campaign.
Walking back from the game, Mr. Romney declined to answer a reporter's question about whether he would be willing to hold one-on-one talks with Iran's leaders — something a New York Times report this weekend suggested Mr. Obama is ready to do. The White House issued a statement denying the report.
"I thought you were talking about one-on-one talks with the president. I was about to answer," the candidate said.
A terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month is sure to come up in Monday's debate.
In last week's debate, Mr. Romney accused Mr. Obama of not spotting the terrorist roots of the assault quickly enough — but voters, by a 44 percent to 40 percent margin, sided with Mr. Obama, who said he mentioned terrorism in his first speech after the Sept. 11 attack.
Still, 29 percent of voters blame the White House for mishandling the situation. Another 16 percent blame the State Department, 5 percent blame the Pentagon and 3 percent blame Congress. A full 30 percent said nobody was to blame and that the attacks weren't mishandled, while the rest weren't sure where to place blame.
Voters were split on two other major issues from last week's debate.
They were inclined to side with Mr. Romney, who charged that Mr. Obama has overseen a drop in oil and gas production on federal lands, by a 29 percent to 21 percent margin, though another 31 percent said both are partially correct.
On the key issue of Mr. Romney's tax plan, however, voters sided with the president, who said the Republican's math doesn't add up, by a 49 percent to 41 percent margin.
In the previous poll by The Times/Zogby taken two weeks ago, voters were evenly split on that question, 44 percent to 44 percent.
Mr. Romney has proposed reducing all tax rates by 20 percent, including those at the highest income-tax brackets, but said he would eliminate some tax loopholes and deductions to recover the money. Under his plan, he said, the top 5 percent of taxpayers would continue to pay 60 percent of all income taxes.
Mr. Obama has taken to calling the plan a "sketchy deal," and campaigning on Saturday in St. Augustine, Fla., Vice President Joseph R. Biden said there aren't enough ways for Mr. Romney to make his plan work.
"There aren't enough loopholes," Mr. Biden said, adding that Mr. Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, have refused to give any details about their plan.
Republicans say the only way to close the deficit is to cut spending and expand the economy to produce more revenue — not to raise taxes.
"President Obama has only said that he wants to tax his way out of it," Romney campaign adviser Kevin Madden said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
The Times/Zogby Poll of 800 likely voters was taken Oct. 18-20 and was based on live telephone interviews. It includes leaners — those who said they weren't sure about their choice but were leaning toward one candidate or the other. The survey has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
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