WASHINGTON -- Americans are growing more optimistic about the economy and President Barack Obama's leadership, creating a significant obstacle for Republican rival Mitt Romney five weeks to Election Day.
Even with unemployment above 8 percent for a 43rd straight month, polls find voters taking comfort in modest signs of economic progress, from a solid jump in consumer confidence this month to steady gains in home prices. Surveys show Obama opening up leads over Romney in several key states, thanks to voters such as Jim Young, 62, a retired engineer from eastern Iowa.
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A political independent, Young says Obama's policies have eased the nation's pain as the recovery plods along. "The markets have been doing quite well," Young said. "So, personally, things are going well and we can't complain."
Interviews with voters in vital swing states and opinion polls suggest Romney inadvertently played into Democrats' long-running efforts to paint him as an out-of-touch plutocrat when a secretly recorded video showed him saying 47 percent of Americans consider themselves victims who depend on government care.
"Romney seems fake, especially after the 47 percent comment," said Kurtis Nash of Cincinnati. "I've always voted for Republicans," he said, but now he's leaning toward Obama.
"I think Obama understands the importance of a strong middle class and he wants to do more to build the middle class," said Nash, 33, a chef at a downtown restaurant. "Maybe he didn't at first, but I think he does now."
Whether the video played a big role or not, Obama is leading in polls in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere. Romney's backers are struggling to change the momentum in a race shaped in large part by voters' perception of the economy and their overall view of who would do a better job for the middle class.
"Sometimes there is a tipping point in politics where the cumulative effect of several things -- and one singular defining event -- can flip voters in one direction," said Republican pollster Steve Lombardo. "I think that was what did happen with `47 percent.' It came after two bad weeks for Romney and crystallized voter perceptions, driven by negative ads, that he only cares about rich people."
Such happenings, Lombardo said, are "lethal in politics."
Obama aides are quick to note that the election is far from over, and any number of unforeseen events could shift the tide. The Romney team hopes Wednesday's presidential debate in Denver -- the first of three in October -- will enable the former Massachusetts governor to alter the campaign's dynamics.
Analysts in both parties point to several likely reasons for Obama's leap in the swing state polls, including:
-- Rising economic optimism.
From the start, Romney said voters should fire Obama chiefly for his handling of the economy. But Americans are feeling somewhat better about the economy, and less inclined to see Romney as the needed fixer.
Associated Press-GfK polls conducted in May and June showed voters about evenly divided between Obama and Romney on the question "who do you trust to do a better job handling the economy." Romney held a narrow edge in August.
But a September survey showed Obama opening up a clear lead on the question, 50 percent to Romney's 43 percent. Among those voters most likely to turn out, who were first measured in September, the two candidates were about even.
The latest poll also showed more adults approving rather than disapproving of Obama's handling of the economy, for the first time in more than a year.
Meanwhile, consumer confidence rose to its highest level since February, the government reported. And the median price of homes sold last month increased by a record amount as mortgage rates remain at an all-time low. The once underwater housing market is showing signs of a modest recovery.
A Washington Post poll of Ohio and Florida voters found more confidence in an economic rebound under Obama than under Romney.
-- Romney's struggle to connect with voters.
Romney, who made millions of dollars heading the private equity firm Bain Capital, has never had a breezy rapport with voters. But Democrats -- and some GOP rivals during the primary -- have worked to portray him as something worse: an unfeeling "vulture capitalist" who doesn't mind laying off workers to increase profits.
Romney's team hoped the Republican convention in August would present him as a caring and competent leader. Polls suggest it didn't help much.
A new Quinnipiac-CBS-New York Times poll found that substantial majorities of likely voters in Ohio and Florida think Obama "cares about your needs and problems," while solid majorities think Romney does not.
The Washington Post poll of registered voters in three battleground states found Obama far ahead of Romney on the question of "who better understands the economic problems" of Americans. Obama bested his Republican challenger by 53 percent to 39 percent in Florida, 54 percent to 37 percent in Virginia, and 57 percent to 34 percent in Ohio.
Strategists say Romney's "47 percent" remarks -- secretly recorded at a May fundraiser and released this month -- have wounded him at a crucial point in the campaign.
"In one moment there was this crystallization for a lot of people about how he viewed them," said Jim Margolis, a top ad-maker for Obama.
Numerous Democrats say Romney blundered by airing few TV ads during the two weeks of the parties' back-to-back nominating conventions, which bracketed Labor Day. It gave Obama's team free range to depict Romney as a tone-deaf mogul, just when many voters were starting to pay attention, these Democrats say.
Romney's latest efforts to show a more compassionate side are getting mixed reviews. He told NBC on Wednesday, "don't' forget, I got everyone in my state insured" when he overhauled Massachusetts' health care system. The comment seemed at odds with Romney's repeated vows to repeal "Obamacare," whose central feature is mandated health coverage for everyone.
-- Election seen as a choice, not a referendum.
Starting last year, Obama's campaign did all it could to frame the election as a choice between two candidates with sharply different visions, and not as a referendum on the president's problematic economic record.
Romney's team took the opposite tack. It worked to couch the election as a verdict on high unemployment and economic anxiety on Obama's watch.
The theory that Obama would sink from his own weight now seems questionable, and Romney has adopted Obama's terminology.
"This election, in my opinion, comes down to a very dramatic choice between two different courses for America," Romney said Wednesday in Westerville, Ohio.
Matt Bennett, a veteran of Democratic campaigns, says Obama's recent rise in the polls "is the result of the race changing from a referendum on the incumbent to a real choice between two candidates."
"Now that voters are taking a harder look at their two choices," Bennett said, "they simply do not like what they see from Romney."
Interviews with voters in key states suggest that Romney still has time to gain ground, if he can convince Americans he will do a better job than Obama.
"I lost my home during his administration," said Thomas Lenner, a commercial real estate broker from Las Vegas who voted for Obama in 2008, and won't do so again. "Obviously, he's not the man for the job," said Lenner, 57. He said Obama could have done more to limit foreclosures.
Lenner adds, however, "I don't think Romney is the answer, to be honest with you. I don't think all the actions he's going to take are going to help all the American people."
Greg Sayabalian, 47, is another struggling Nevadan who has given up on Obama, but is not sold on Romney. He co-owns Hamdog's Restaurant in Gardnerville, a popular spot for construction workers until the 2008 recession hit.
"Overnight, they just stopped coming in," Sayabalian said. "My take-home pay is $595 every two weeks. My waitresses make more than I do."
Sayabalian said he's probably leaning toward Romney, but he hasn't ruled out Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
Some Republicans have urged Romney to woo such wavering voters by offering more details about how he would cut tax rates without reducing the government's revenue, and how he would start balancing the budget while hiking military spending. Obama has begun taunting Romney for the relative lack of details in his proposals.
"No matter how many times they try to tell you they're going to start talking specifics real soon, they don't do it," Obama told supporters last week in Kent, Ohio. "The reason is because the math doesn't work."
It was the jibe of a confident-sounding incumbent, buoyed by encouraging polls in nearly every tossup state. Romney has five weeks, and three big debates, to try to knock the swagger out of Obama.