WASHINGTON (Detroit Free Press) - Two months ago, it appeared Michigan might well be prime real estate for Mitt Romney as he sought the Republican nomination for president.
In a Detroit Free Press/WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) poll then, native Michigander Romney led the Democratic president, Barack Obama, 46%-41%, in a head-to-head matchup.
But as Romney's path to the nomination has gotten cloudy, his lead in the state over the Democratic incumbent also has evaporated. In a new Michigan poll, Obama has taken the head-to-head lead, 48%-40%.
The poll, done by EPIC-MRA of Lansing for five days concluding this Wednesday, surveyed 600 likely voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
It comes as good news for Obama as he heads, again, to Michigan for an event. He's arriving tonight at Metro Airport and will speak at the University of Michigan Friday morning about retraining workers and making higher education more affordable. It will be his third trip to southeastern Michigan since Labor Day.
The poll showed that Obama's support is bolstered by independents, a crucial voting bloc for the president in 2008, when he easily won Michigan. Two months ago, Romney led among self-described Michigan independents with 41% to 34% for Obama. But this week's poll shows Obama leads Romney among the group 44% to 34%.
There's been recent good news out of Michigan. Its 9.3% unemployment rate in December is the lowest in more than three years. General Motors was recently re-crowned No. 1 in worldwide sales among automakers. The all-important auto sector has been adding jobs and profits have been stronger. More state residents believe the local economy is on the way up at last.
The poll suggests a surge toward Obama as Romney, despite his clear Republican front-runner status after a win Jan. 10 in the New Hampshire primary, has failed to get more conservative Republicans to coalesce around him.
Romney remains stronger against Obama than former House Speaker Gingrich, the poll showed. Obama leads Gingrich 51%-38%.
But the poll also showed Romney's Michigan advantage with Republicans sinking, too, as that state heads toward a Feb. 28 presidential primary.
Romney's 31% among likely Republican presidential primary voters is down from 34% he had in a separate Michigan poll, also conducted by EPIC-MRA.
Gingrich, the former congressman from Georgia, has closed the Michigan gap. He now has 26% support, up from 17%.
And that's without a large-scale, coordinated campaign underway in Michigan for Gingrich.
"That's just free media, coverage from Florida and the debates," said Bernie Porn, president of EPIC-MRA.
Because the number of voters likely to take part in the Republican primary was much smaller - 271 - than the total 600-voter sample, the margin of error was closer to plus or minus 6 percentage points among the GOP field.
With only three other Republicans in the race, it means Gingrich is picking up most of the support from withdrawn candidates like Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"Clearly there's a segment of the Republican voters who are still looking for anybody but Romney," said Porn. "That problem persists."
Among likely Republican primary voters in Michigan, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had 14%, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania had 10% and 19% were undecided.
By Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press Washington Bureau