DES MOINES, Iowa -- The election is all about an economy that Iowa voters think President Obama has done too little to fix.
A Des Moines Register Iowa Poll shows Obama is ahead in Iowa 49% to 45%. But if Mitt Romney can convince voters that he truly knows how to doctor the nation's ailing economy, the GOP presidential candidate can still put Iowa in his pocket, political analysts say.
Half of Iowa adults disapprove of the job the Democratic president is doing on the economy, an issue that 59% of likely voters here rank as one of the most important, the poll found.
Romney has built his campaign on the argument that his business knowledge, gained in building the private equity firm Bain Capital, better equips him than Obama to create jobs. Likely Iowa voters agree by a hefty 25 percentage points that the Republican nominee would better care for the needs of businesses. But so far they're not convinced Romney will do a better job of shoring up the economy. He trails slightly (47% to 46%) in voters' perception of who would be the better economy fixer.
"The numbers are striking -- that's his opportunity that he's not cashed in on," said the Register's pollster, J. Ann Selzer. "It's just a huge opportunity."
The news from battleground Iowa, whose six electoral votes are a vital puzzle piece in the journey to 270,means there's even more pressure on Romney to make a slam dunk case for his economic prowess during three presidential debates this fall. In the first debate, on Wednesday, three of six segments will focus on the economy.
GOP strategist Alex Castellanos said: "Romney does not have to prove Obama is doing a bad job on the economy. Voters already believe that. They want a door out of the room. They want to know if Romney has a new idea."
The poll, a Register exclusive since 1943, was conducted Sept. 23-26 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines. It surveyed 800 Iowa adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Election questions were asked of 650 likely voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
Another noteworthy finding: Although Iowa's likely voters give Obama the nod at the top of the ticket, a strong majority believe Romney's running mate, budget-and-deficit repairman Paul Ryan, is an asset. More likely voters think Vice President Joe Biden is a liability to the ticket than a lift.
Most have locked in choice
Thirty-seven days from Election Day, Iowa has few undecided voters left -- just 2%.
But 10% of likely voters say they could still change their minds. Of that group, more than half are independent voters.
"The 10 percent persuadable could change the race," Democratic strategist Celinda Lake said.
As federal debt grows, gridlock confounds Congress, trouble spots heat up around the world and joblessness remains high, Iowans are feeling more optimistic. And for the first time in three years, Obama's job approval in Iowa is above water.
Seven months ago, Iowa was a trouble spot for Obama. More Iowa adults disapproved of the job he was doing as president (48%) than approved (46%).
In hypothetical head-to-head matchups in mid-February, Obama trailed a trio of GOP candidates,including Romney, in the wake of intensive Republican messaging throughout the caucuses.
Obama has mounted a vigorous counterattack: 10 days of campaigning in Iowa this year, 67 campaign offices opened, a successful Democratic convention and more than$13 million in TV ads here.
The president's job approval is nowhere close to his Iowa high of 68% shortly after he took office. But he has crossed a symbolic point crucial for re-election: More Iowans think he's doing a good job as president (51%) than a bad job (47%).
More feel better about nation's path
Most Iowans, 54%, continue to believe the nation is on the wrong track, the poll found.
But those who think the country is going in the right direction have increased by 10 percentage points since February.
"When 10% more people think the country is headed in the right direction, that's 10%less who feel the need for a change," Castellanos said.
It's a big uptick, from 30% to 40%, even though the economy has remained sluggish. The government released revised growth statistics last week, downgrading second quarter growth from 1.7% to 1.3%.
"I would credit it to the return of Dr. Feelgood: Bill Clinton," Castellanos said, referring to the former president's Democratic convention speech and the TV ad featuring Clinton that Obama has run in Iowa since then. "Clinton's 'laying on of hands'reminds voters of happier and more prosperous times."
Strategists said there's still wiggle room for attitudes about the economy to change. Two monthly jobs reports remain before Election Day and four debates -- three presidential and one vice presidential. The fact that Iowans' optimism has shifted so much since February signals how much voters can be moved, strategists said.
Independents offer opening
Obama leads Romney by 6 or more percentage points in voters' perceptions of his ability to determine the future of Medicare, health care and tax policy, and to handle relations with other countries as well as military engagement in Afghanistan and tension in the Middle East.
Among all Iowans, 50% approve of Obama's work on relations with other countries, but he has ticked down a couple of points since February, possibly tied to unrest in Libya or his positions on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Meanwhile, he's upside down on his job approval on health care and the economy. Obamacare is not helping him, but perceptions have improved since February.
So have opinions about his handling of the economy, up 7 percentage points since February, to 45%. Those gains helped push him to positive territory in overall job approval.
"If this is a referendum, you now have a majority who like him and think he's doing a good job," Lake said.
Romney's big issue advantage: He has opened an 11-point lead in perceptions of his ability to reduce the federal deficit, one of the most important issues to 27 percent of likely voters, ranking third behind health care (31%). The economy leads the list by far (59%).
"Romney failed to make this about deficit," Lake said.
But among independent voters, Romney has a 5-point lead on the economy, and a 12-point lead on the deficit. If he can continue to drive that message, there's opportunity to shake loose persuadable independents, strategists said.
The Obama campaign is heavily focused on early voting, which began here last week. Its goal is to build a margin before Election Day, when Republicans tend to turnout more heavily than Democrats, strategists said.
Some political experts have already switched Iowa from tossup to leans Democratic.
Obama himself sounded bullish about Iowa and re-election when he told the Register in an interview last week that his victory would send "a clear message" to Republicans about the direction Americans want to take.