(USA TODAY) - Six months out, it's a tie.
The first USA TODAY/Gallup Swing States Poll since the GOP settled on a presumptive nominee shows big challenges for each side: Mitt Romney in generating enthusiasm and a personal connection with his supporters, and Barack Obama in convincing Americans he should be trusted to manage a fragile economy.
The president and the former Massachusetts governor start their head-to-head contest essentially even among registered voters - Obama 47%, Romney 45% - in the dozen battleground states likely to determine the election's outcome. That's closer than the lead of 9 percentage points for Obama in the Swing States survey in late March.
But the poll also finds a reversal in what has been a key GOP asset in the five previous battleground surveys taken since last fall: an edge in enthusiasm among voters. For the first time, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting - a shift from a 14-percentage-point GOP advantage at the end of last year to an 11-point deficit now.
That drop is driven by Republicans who describe themselves as moderate or liberal, about a third of the party, even though the candidate widely viewed as the most moderate in the GOP primary field is poised to be nominated. Just 7% of moderate and liberal Republicans now say they are extremely enthusiastic, down from 24% in January and compared with 34% of conservative Republicans who feel that way.
"After a long and completely negative Republican primary on the other side, there are not a lot of people enthusiastic about Gov. Romney," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in an interview. "The polls are finally catching up to what we're seeing for a long time - a fired-up Democratic base."
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse dismisses the idea that enthusiasm will be a problem. "We're confident that on Election Day Republicans are not only going to be solidly, overwhelmingly behind Mitt Romney but will be voting for him with enthusiasm over Barack Obama," he says.
The president faces a more serious issue, Newhouse says: Lagging ratings on managing the economy, the issue both campaigns predict will dominate the campaign.
Among those surveyed, 60% say a President Romney would do a good or very good job handling the economy over the next four years; 52% say that of Obama. Even among the president's supporters, four in 10 predict Romney would do a good job. In a direct comparison, Romney edges Obama, 47%-44%, as the one who would do a better job.
"You've got a candidate who has just been through the bruising Republican primary and came out somewhat bloodied, so it's pretty remarkable that in these target states Gov. Romney is doing better than Obama on the biggest issue, the economy," Newhouse said. "It's hard to read it any differently than a public indictment of the president's economic policy."
The up-for-grabs states surveyed are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The economy is the issue for Bill Alvey, 55, a software developer from Colorado Springs, as he considers whom to support. He was among those polled.
"At this point, I would say Mitt Romney, assuming that nothing monumental happens between now and then," Alvey said in a follow-up interview. "I realize Obama didn't inherit a wonderful economic situation, but it just seems the last four years, it's like - are you better off than you were four years ago? As a country, I just feel like we are much worse off than we were four years ago."
Who's more likable?
Obama has some advantages.
By a yawning 27 points, those surveyed describe Obama as more likable than Romney - not a frivolous asset. The candidate viewed as more likable has prevailed in every election since 1980. Even among Romney's supporters, one in four call Obama more likable.
By 10 points, voters say Obama is more likely to care about the needs of people like themselves. By 7 points, they call Obama a stronger and more decisive leader.
"No president can get everything done in four years," says LaTonya McCants, 44, a nursing assistant from Cleveland and an enthusiastic Obama backer. "He did make some good changes, and I feel he should get another four years" to finish the job.
Times may be tough, but she believes Obama is on her side. "He's for everybody," McCants says. Who does Romney care about? "Probably the business people," she says.
Romney is seen as equally capable of managing the government, leading Obama by 2 points on that trait.
The bottom line: Voters already have clear and distinctly different perceptions of the two candidates - their skills, personalities and political views - even though many of them are only beginning to pay attention to the presidential race.
"Obama has the softer image dimensions tied up: He's likable, compassionate, feels your pain, relates, understands," says Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief. "These are presumably the dimensions that appeal to today's Democratic coalition," which includes most non-white and younger voters as well as some highly educated whites.
Voters see Romney as an "efficient manager" to handle the economy with "a more Darwinian approach," Newport says. "He's less interested in feeling your pain than telling you how to fix your pain by ... doing something about it."
Consider how the candidates were campaigning almost precisely six months before Election Day on Nov. 6. Obama officially launched his campaign Saturday at huge rallies on college campuses in two of the swing states, Ohio and Virginia. Romney spent time last week in the Old Dominion, too, decrying the president's economic policies to supporters gathered at small businesses.
On a political spectrum
When it comes to ideology, perceptions also are set.
About a third of voters say Obama's political views and their own are about the same while a 54% majority say the president is more liberal than they are. Just one in 10 say he's more conservative.
About a third of voters say Romney's political views and their own are about the same, and he's seen as roughly in the middle of the political spectrum: About one in three call him more conservative than they are; about one in four call him more liberal.
Seven of 10 voters in those states say their minds are firmly made up and won't change. Both campaigns are focused not only on firing up enthusiasm among those core supporters but also winning over the 7% who are undecided and the 24% who are only loosely committed to a candidate.
Under the United States' unique Electoral College system, that fraction of voters in a dozen states are likely to decide who can claim the presidency for the next four years. Based on turnout in 2008, these swing voters in the swing states consist of roughly a million people in Virginia; 1.6 million in Ohio; 2.5 million in Florida; 220,000 in New Hampshire - a total of about 13 million voters out of an expected national turnout of more than 130 million.
The next six months, when political spending will likely top $2 billion, will be aimed in large part at winning them over.
In the 2008 campaign, almost precisely the same proportion of voters were up for grabs until late August, when it began to decline sharply with the choice of a Republican vice presidential candidate and the political conventions. By Election Day, the number of uncommitted voters nearly disappeared.
Who are these persuadable voters?
This time, they tend to be Republican or Republican-leaning. Half describe themselves as moderate; six in 10 say Obama is more liberal than they are. They give the president a lower job-approval rating (40%) than other voters. By 2-to-1, they predict Romney would do a better job in handling the economy.
Even so, they aren't solidly on Romney's side, at least not yet.
Katherine O'Leary, 25, of Hillman, Mich., isn't sure whether she supports Romney but she knows she opposes Obama. "I think he's an amateur and he doesn't know what he's doing," she says. But she's leery of Romney, in part because of the health care bill he signed into law in Massachusetts.
"It's a mini-version of the (federal) health care law, more of a big-government thing," says O'Leary, who was called in the poll. In the primaries, her preferred candidate was former business CEO Herman Cain. "He seemed honest and it was like he knew what he was doing," she says. "He had a plan."
For Romney, winning swing voters will require making his case and a personal connection, even if Obama continues to be seen as the more likable candidate. Newhouse notes that the president's advantage on that characteristic hasn't translated into a clear lead so far. "They're going for competence over likability," he says of voters.
For Obama, it means strengthening his hand on economic issues - an effort linked to how the economy fares - and countering Romney's appeal. "I think the more people examine Gov. Romney's record, the less likely they are to believe he's a credible messenger on the economy," Messina says, citing a "record of off-shoring jobs overseas as governor and as a corporate buyout specialist."
Jamie Richardson, 41, of Altoona, Pa., is a swing-state voter who hasn't made up his mind.
On one hand, he owes Obama a personal favor. Soon after the inauguration in 2009, his wife, who is German, wrote the president a letter explaining that she was having trouble negotiating the system to get a green card. Within days, she got a response and the problem was unraveled.
"He's done a good job for us there," says Richardson, an Army veteran of Desert Storm who now works at Wal-Mart. On the other hand, he says, "Looking at it overall ... I don't like what he's done while he's in office," and he'd like to learn more about Romney.
He has some advice for both candidates.
"Every president, they make promises and promises," he says. "The thing that irritates me, they say, 'I'm going to do this in office.' Well, you can't say that. You have the Congress to get it through. ... Be honest. Say, 'I will try to do this.'"
The candidate who does that, he says, is likely to get his vote.