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NBC/WSJ poll: Obama leads Romney by six points, but Republican ahead on economy

With the Republican presidential primary season essentially over and with the general election campaign now under way, President Barack Obama begins the race with a six-point lead over presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Obama’s advantage is fueled by his traditionally strong-standing among African Americans, Latinos and young voters, as well as with women and even political independents. What’s more, he’s viewed – by substantial margins – as more likeable, compassionate and better for the middle class than Romney.

Click here for a copy of the polling results (pdf)

But the poll also shows that the president’s biggest weakness – the economy – is also Romney’s strength. And with Republicans beginning to rally around the former Massachusetts governor and with the GOP especially enthusiastic about November’s election, the race has the potential to be close, the NBC/WSJ pollsters say. 

Related: NBC/WSJ poll: Romney's image improves but remains a net-negative

“You are projecting a very, very close campaign,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

“It is going to look like 2004 or 2000,” Hart added, referring to George W. Bush’s extremely narrow victories in those two presidential contests. “There are plenty of things that suggest it has a long, long way to go.”

Obama running strong with his base and key swing groups
This week featured a flurry of national polls that showed varying results: A CNN poll had Obama up by nine; the Pew Research Center had the president up four; a New York Times/CBS poll had it even; and the Gallup Daily Tracking Poll currently has Romney up by five.

But in this NBC/WSJ poll, Obama leads Romney among registered voters, 49 percent to 43 percent – a margin that has been fairly consistent in the survey since the beginning of the year; the president led Romney in March, 50 percent to 44 percent.

Looking inside these numbers, the president holds an advantage with African Americans (90 percent to 4 percent), Latinos (69 percent to 22 percent) voters ages 18-34 (60 percent to 34 percent) and women (53 percent to 41 percent).

In addition, he edges Romney among key swing groups like independents (44 percent to 34 percent), Midwest voters (47 percent to 44 percent) and suburban women (48 percent to 45 percent).

Meanwhile, Romney is ahead among whites (52 percent to 40 percent), suburban voters (49 percent to 44 percent) and those expressing high interest in the election (49 percent to 46 percent).

In measuring key attributes and qualities, Obama also enjoys significant leads on being easygoing and likeable (54 percent to 18 percent); on caring about average people (52 percent to 22 percent); on dealing with issues of concern to women (49 percent to 21 percent); and on looking out for the middle class (48 percent to 27 percent).

He’s also ahead of Romney when it comes to being knowledgeable and experienced about the presidency (45 percent to 30 percent), being a good commander-in-chief (43 percent to 33 percent), being consistent and standing up for his beliefs (41 percent to 30 percent), and being honest and straightforward (37 percent to 30 percent).

Romney’s economic edge
But Romney’s advantage comes on what will probably be the No. 1 issue in the fall: the economy.

By a 40-34 percent margin, respondents believe Romney would be better when it comes to having good ideas for improving the economy. And Romney also edges Obama on changing "business as usual" in Washington.

Thirty-eight percent think the economy will improve within the next year, 19 percent say it will get worse and 42 percent believe it will stay the same.

Those numbers – which come after a disappointing March jobs report, which showed the unemployment rate declining to 8.2 percent but which also showed the economy adding a less-than-expected 120,000 jobs – are fairly consistent with the findings from January and March.

Obama’s economic improvement
Just 45 percent approve of the president’s handling of the economy, which is unchanged from March.

But that standing is an improvement from the summer and fall of 2011, when his economic handling was below 40 percent.

Obama’s overall job-approval rating stands at 49 percent – which, not surprisingly, matches his ballot-test percentage against Romney. (His percentage also is similar to the job-approval numbers of what the last two incumbents who won-re-election, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, had in the NBC/WSJ poll at this same point in the race.) 

In addition, a plurality – 36 percent – believes the president’s policies have helped U.S. economic conditions, while 33 percent say they’ve hurt the economy. Thirty percent say they haven’t made a difference.

That’s a big change from last year, when only about 20 percent said Obama’s policies had helped the economy.

And those percentages are matched pretty evenly against a Republican: 37 percent say a GOP candidate winning the presidency would help the economy, 28 percent say he would hurt it and 31 percent said it wouldn't make a difference.

“The president is in better shape than he was” in 2011, says Hart, the Democratic pollster.

Testing the economic messages
What also seems to be in better shape is Obama’s economic messaging.

More than three-quarters of respondents (including nearly 70 percent of independents and Republicans) say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who “will fight for balance and fairness and encourage the investments needed to grow our economy and strengthen the middle class,” which has become a standard line for Obama.

In addition, seven in 10 say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who “says America is better off when everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same rules” – another Obama line.

By comparison, 64 percent would be more likely to support a candidate who wants “to restore the values of economic freedom, opportunity, and small government,” which strongly resembles Romney’s economic messaging.

And 61 percent would be more likely to support a candidate who says “free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty, help build a strong middle class, and more our lives better than all of the government’s programs put together,” which is something that Romney tends to say.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted April 13-17 of 1,000 respondents (250 reached by cell phone), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.