Image: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney composite
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This combination of file pictures shows President Barack Obama Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney addressing crowds.
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NBC News
updated 10/3/2012 11:52:16 AM ET 2012-10-03T15:52:16

As President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney prepare to square off for their first debate Wednesday night, the Democratic incumbent maintains a significant lead in one key battleground state while the contests in two others have tightened, according to a new round of NBC News/Marist/Wall Street Journal polls.

In Ohio, Obama holds a 51 percent to 43 percent lead among likely voters, which is relatively unchanged from his 50 percent to 43 percent lead three weeks ago.

NBC News/WSJ/Marist Va. Poll

NBC News/WSJ/Marist Ohio Poll

NBC News/WSJ/Marist Fl. Poll

In Florida and Virginia, Obama and Romney are statistically tied, with the Democrat clinging to a slight edge. In Florida, Obama leads 47 percent to 46 percent, down from 49 percent to 45 percent in mid-September. And in Virginia, Obama is up 48 percent to 46 percent. Last month, Obama led 49 percent to 45 percent in the Old Dominion state.

"The polling in September was right after the conventions," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. He added, "We may be seeing a dissipation in some of that post-convention bounce that [Obama] enjoyed."

NBC/WSJ poll: Obama maintains lead, but Romney within striking distance

Miringoff also noted, "Things have returned in Florida and Virginia to the kind of closeness we've been seeing earlier in the campaign. Not so in Ohio."

These three states are where the campaigns have focused the lion's share of their resources. Of the $687 million in total advertising spending between the campaigns and outside groups, more than half -- $384 million -- has been spent trying to tip the 60 electoral votes in this trio of battlegrounds.

Women's support for the president and a continued negative perception of Romney are fueling Obama's lead in Ohio. There is a wide gender gap in the Buckeye State, with women saying they prefer Obama over Romney by a 56 percent to 39 percent margin.

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A majority of all Ohio voters (51 percent) view Romney negatively; just 42 percent view him positively. It was the reverse for Obama, who enjoys a 52 percent/favorable, 44 percent/unfavorable score.

"Ohio needs to change if Romney's going to make that state more competitive," Miringoff said.

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In Florida, though, it's a different picture. There, Romney's image is in better shape -- 46 percent view him positively, while 43 percent view him unfavorably. That may not seem like much, but that three-point, net-positive score is Romney's best in any of the nine battleground states tested in the NBC/Marist/WSJ polls following the political conventions.

In the last Florida poll, Romney was plus-two in positive feelings; in Virginia last month, he was plus-one, just as he was in North Carolina last week. All of the other states have shown Romney with an upside-down score.

Though Obama is a slightly higher net-positive (50 percent to 45 percent) in favorability in Florida, his negative score is actually higher than Romney's.

The movement in Florida came from independents. Both parties are locked in, but in this survey, independents broke for Romney 47 percent to 41 percent. Three weeks ago, Obama led with them 48 percent to 41 percent.

Virginia saw minor shifts across several groups accounting for Romney's two-point gain.

The president has a 48 percent job approval rating across all three states, a number Miringoff calls a "good number for an incumbent." But "it's not a great number."

Ann Romney: Debate will highlight contrast between candidates

"It's right on the edge of where someone seeking re-election needs to be," Miringoff said.

As the candidates and the country look to first of three presidential debates Wednesday night, it's worth noting that within these three polls, there was a very low number of undecided or persuadable voters – something reflected nationally and in other swing-state surveys as well.

"Typically debates are aimed at winning undecided voters," Miringoff said.

But there may not be many voters left to sway.

Still, for Obama, solid debate performances could "cement" his lead in these states, Miringoff said.

"For the challenger," he added, "it's always the second chance to make a first impression."

In the hotly contested Virginia Senate race, Democrat Tim Kaine leads Republican George Allen, 49 percent to 44 percent among likely voters. Last month, Kaine and Allen were tied, 46 percent to 46 percent.

Story: Why tonight's debate could be so crucial

In Ohio, Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown continues to lead Republican challenger Josh Mandel. Brown holds a 50 percent to 41 percent lead, which is slightly expanded from where the race was last month. Brown then led 49 percent to 42 percent.

In Florida, Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson holds a 52 percent to 41 percent lead over Republican challenger Connie Mack. Last month, Nelson's lead was a slightly wider 14 points.

The polls were conducted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1. The Ohio poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent. The Virginia poll is plus-or-minus 3.1 percent. The Florida poll is plus or minus 3.3 percent.

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Video: Poll: Romney’s favorability rating is upside down

  1. Closed captioning of: Poll: Romney’s favorability rating is upside down

    >>> do you like polls? because we have a lot of them. lots of new polls on the state level, national level. here is where the presidential contest stands. the president leads by three points among likely voters. tighter race than the seven point margin among registered voters . gentleman, good morning. you are missing a wonderful day out here. bill, let me start with you about likelihood big discrepancy. i pointed out this issue of enthusiasm. i want to get people to understand why is there such a difference between the registered and likely margins?

    >> what happens is likely voters are less likely to be hispanic and the percentage of people 18-29 year olds drop. and so as a consquence with the poll being older and less hispanic it moves suddenly to the direction of mitt romney . that happens consistently because most are picking up the same thing in terms of voter groups less likely to vote.

    >> and just to let people know to be likely you have to say yes to two of these following three questions that you voted in 2008 and 2010 and you are a nine or a ten on a scale of one to ten in interest in the eelection. on hispanics the president hits 70% in our poll yet hispanic interest in the election is down double digits from four years ago. it is a net zero for the president.

    >> i think we have five weeks left. tonight is sort of for a lot of average americans the kickoff to the general election , not the convention. i would say what this poll shows is all the elements are there for a close race but i think the president has net advantage. over the next 35 days the obama campaign , the democrats we need to motivate our voters and get them out to vote and we can win.

    >> explain why 49-46 more solid lead than 47-44?

    >> president is a little closer to 50 than 47. lower undecided. in our poll and also the msnbc poll it is not the overall country because california is going to go to democrats and utah to republicans but where swing states are president has net advantage there. one of the interesting thing was with independent voters the president is doing better now than four years ago.

    >> when you look at our poll and if you ignored the head to head and didn't look at it and looked at everything else you would say the 47% remark by mitt romney left a mark, if you will. asked directly about it more positive 23% more negative 45%. asked generally if it made you more favorable the president is one to one. two to one on mitt romney . and in the ballot it did not leave a mark. is it a problem for mitt romney or not?

    >> i don't think that is how a campaign runner spends talking about for two weeks. african american and latino voters are very important. i want every american to vote. they are not voting for mitt romney . when you look at numbers like are you more favorable about this candidate the president and romney have parallel numbers among white voters. these huge margins are because overwhelmingly 78 to 4 african americans are saying less likely. if you are losing 100% of the vote it doesn't effect the ballot. so the difference in this poll is you have to look at the valid coalition compared to the numbers you are using from this survey. that explains how you can have the negative numbers from romney and have him going up in the poll compared to two weeks ago mpt.

    >> i want to go to candidate qualities thmpt president has leads on looking after the middle class , dealing with immigration and medicare. single digit on health care , being a good commander in chief, foreign policy and taxes. of all of those qualities, the two that would concern you the most if you were mitt romney ?

    >> the one you didn't mention is mitt romney is ahead on changing washington , d.c. and the economy. you have to look at what is putting mitt romney in the ballpark. in washington , d.c. we spent two weeks talking about the romney campaign troubles. our poll was one of five released monday or tuesday where likely voters showed romney stronger than two weeks ago. so at some point the narrative has to change of wow, look what happened. romney didn't get weaker. he has gotten stronger. it isn't just our poll it is one of five national surveys in two days that says it is a margin of error campaign.

    >> i know. i was going to do the romney qualities. i wanted to do the obama qualities with you. i was going to ask you the taxes issue. having the democrat lead on taxes can't be good for a republican.

    >> we had the second cycle in a row where obama 's run and tried to neutralize a tax advantage . again, part of it and thas is what is really new to our poling. more afffluent people think obama is the biggest threat to them. lower income people think mitt romney is. we are seeing cultural differences by income that are interesting.

    >> the romney quality advantages what i want to do with you federal budget deficit up nine. dealing with china as an economic rival up eight. on the economy up three. changing business as usual in washington is dead even. if you are the obama campaign what concerns you the most here? the deficit number?

    >> probably the deficit. i think if you are the president's campaign you're less worried about romney 's numbers right now. on the one hand the 40% right direction is the highest it has been in 3 1/2 years and any incumbent heading in that is momentum. 53% say the country is headed in the wrong track. i think this for the president is not about mitt romney . those advantages, chuck, on china, foreign policy and the deficit aren't as strong as for usual republicans. and the final point i would make is i think the important thing for this election is that braump has a 52 positive, 42 negative image. mitt romney has a negative image. only two have had a net negative image at this point and one of them loss, george h.w. bush and romney needs to improve that dynamic.

    >> democratic pollster. thank you very much to both of you. we have to get back in the field. let's keep

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