By LAURIE KELLMAN and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

    WASHINGTON (AP) — A surging Rick Santorum is running even with Mitt Romney atop the Republican presidential field, but neither candidate is faring well against President Barack Obama eight months before Americans vote, a new survey shows.

     Obama tops 50 percent support when matched against each of the four GOP candidates and holds a significant lead over each of them, according to the Associated Press-GfK poll. Republicans, meanwhile, are divided on whether they’d rather see Romney or Santorum capture the nomination, with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul lagging behind. It’s a troubling sign for the better-funded Romney as the GOP race heads toward crucial votes in his home state of Michigan, in Arizona and in an array of states on Super Tuesday, March 6.

     ”I’d pick Santorum, because it seems Romney may be waffling on a few issues and I’m not sure I trust him,” said Thomas Stehlin, 66, of St. Clair Shores, Mich. He thinks the Detroit-born son of a Michigan governor is facing a strong challenge from Santorum in his home state because of his tangled answers on the auto industry bailout.

     Also, he says, there’s this: Romney, the self-described can-do turnaround artist of the corporate world and the troubled Salt Lake City Olympics, with his millions of dollars, has been unable to vanquish his political opponents.

     ”That may be the reason right there,” said Stehlin, a retired government worker and a Republican. “He spends lots of money and he doesn’t get anywhere.”

     Nationally, Republicans are evenly split between Romney and Santorum. The poll found 33 percent would most like to see Santorum get the nomination, while 32 percent prefer Romney. Gingrich and Paul each had 15 percent support.

     Romney’s fall from presumed front-runner to struggling establishment favorite has given his opponents an opening as he tries to expand his support. His Republican rivals have stepped in claiming to be a more consistent conservative and viable opponent against Obama, and each of the last three AP-GfK polls has found a different contender battling Romney for the top spot. But Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and abortion foe, has hit his stride at a key moment in the nomination contest.

     Santorum’s spike comes as satisfaction with the field of candidates remains tepid and interest in the contest is cools. About 6 in 10 Republicans in the poll say they are satisfied with the people running for the nomination, stagnant since December and below the 66 percent that felt that way in October. Only 23 percent are strongly satisfied with the field and 4 in 10 said they are dissatisfied with the candidates running, the poll found. And deep interest in the race is slipping: Just 40 percent of Republicans say they have a great deal of interest in following the contest, compared with 48 percent in December.

     ”It seems like in the last month or so everything’s just chilled out,” said James Jackson of Fort Worth, Texas, a 40-year-old independent who leans Republican. “I just haven’t been following it lately.”

     Santorum remains Romney’s biggest threat. He won GOP contests in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, stunning the GOP establishment that Romney has methodically courted since his first bid for the GOP nomination in 2008. The poll suggested more people are getting to know and like Santorum, with 44 percent of all adults saying they have a favorable impression of him, compared with 25 percent in December. The share with negative views has grown as well, with 42 percent having an unfavorable opinion of Santorum.

     Among Republicans in that time period, Santorum has shot from 37 percent to 70 percent favorable.

     There’s evidence that Santorum’s comments about social issues may not have hurt him so far among women.

     The former Pennsylvania senator has been unapologetic in his opposition to abortion and his concerns about working moms, women in combat and contraception — some of the many examples he cites while making the case that he would draw a clearer contrast than Romney against Obama.

     For all that, there’s little evident gender gap between Romney and Santorum, the AP-GfK poll showed. Santorum, who made some of the comments while the poll was being conducted Feb. 16-20, runs even with Romney among both Republican men and women. And Republican women may be rallying to his defense: Seventy-five percent of GOP women have a favorable impression of Santorum, compared with 66 percent of Republican men, the poll found.

     The enduring split between Romney and whichever Republican opponent is up at any moment reflects a familiar dispute in the broader GOP over whether to focus on social issues or financial matters in presidential races. According to exit and entrance polls conducted so far this cycle, Romney has carried voters who called the economy their top issue in 4 out of 5 states, while Santorum has drawn broader support among those calling abortion their top concern. Abortion has lagged well behind the economy as a priority for voters through the Nevada caucuses, but the recent focus on social issues in the campaign could increase its importance.

     Among conservative Republicans, Santorum holds a decisive edge, with 41 percent preferring him and 27 percent supporting Romney. But ask moderate and liberal Republicans the same question and the results flip: Forty percent favor Romney while 20 percent prefer Santorum.

     Similarly, tea party Republicans also favor Santorum over Romney, 44 percent to 23 percent. Non-tea partyers tilt toward Romney, with 38 percent preferring him and 25 percent supporting Santorum.

     Santorum enjoys an edge among Republicans age 45 and up, those paying the closest attention to the GOP race and born-again and evangelical voters.

     Looking ahead to the general election, Obama holds an 8-point lead over Romney, 9 points over Santorum and 10 points over Gingrich or Paul, the survey found.

     Notably, the survey showed the president dominating among independents, a group central to Obama’s 2008 victory, whose support for him had faltered in recent months. According to the poll, 6 in 10 independents would choose Obama over any of the Republicans.

     There was good news for Republicans, too: Any of the four Republican candidates would likely top Obama among those age 65 and over, as well as among whites without college degrees.

     For their part, Democrats were watching with some glee.

     ”It’s been a great show,” said Karen Clark, 38, a radio personality from Raleigh, N.C., who’s voting for Obama.

     The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted Feb. 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. It involved telephone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

     ___

     Associated Press writers Dennis Junius and Stacy Anderson contributed to this report.

     ___

 

     Online:

    http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

 

 

How the poll was conducted

 

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

     The Associated Press-GfK Poll on the 2012 elections and Republican candidates was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Feb. 16-20. It is based on landline and cellphone telephone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,000 adults, including 450 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Interviews were conducted with 700 respondents on landline telephones and 300 on cellular phones.

     Digits in the phone numbers dialed were generated randomly to reach households with unlisted and listed landline and cellphone numbers.

     Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.

     As is done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population’s makeup by factors such as age, sex, education and race. In addition, the weighting took into account patterns of phone use — landline only, cell only and both types — by region.

     No more than one time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 4.1 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all adults in the U.S. were polled. The margin of sampling error for Republicans and Republican-leaning independents is plus or minus 6.2 percentage points.

     There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

     The questions and results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com .

Topline results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com and http://surveys.ap.org.

AP-GfK Poll: Economy, other issues overshadow abortion

DENVER (AP) — As a season of campaigning enters its final, intense weekend, a new Associated Press-GfK poll illustrates the challenge ahead for candidates and their allies trying to rally voters around traditional wedge issues such as abortion and gay marriage. This fall, voters just have other matters on their minds.

Social issues are eclipsed by concerns about the economy, health care, the Islamic State group and Ebola, the poll finds. And hovering over each of these individual issues is a broad dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama and Republican leaders in Congress.

Only 32 percent of likely voters called gay marriage an important issue, compared with 91 percent ranking the economy important, 78 percent with similar concerns about health care and 74 percent naming Ebola important. The issue that some Democrats have emphasized most of all — abortion rights — also has been a relatively low priority, with only 43 percent of likely voters in a September poll ranking it important.

Yet women’s health and reproductive rights have been at the center of campaigns for U.S. Senate in Alaska, Iowa, North Carolina and especially Colorado. There, half of the ads aired by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and those backing his re-election have criticized his GOP opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, on women’s health issues. They include a contention the 40-year-old congressman from eastern Colorado wants to ban some forms of birth control.

“Democrats this year clearly think that all that you need is that silver bullet of social issues,” said Katy Atkinson, a GOP political official in Denver. “It’s not. You need more.”

Gardner may have been able to parry the offensive by proposing that birth control pills be sold over-the-counter, without a prescription. After he began airing an ad on his proposal last month — as security concerns rose amid U.S. military action against the Islamic State group in the Middle East and the West Africa outbreak of the Ebola virus — Gardner moved ahead in public polls.

Gardner isn’t the only Republican to propose the sale of birth control over-the-counter. So, too, have Republicans running for Senate in North Carolina, Virginia and Minnesota.

The issue of access to birth control has also found its way into the Senate race in Iowa, where Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley has hammered his Republican opponent, state Sen. Joni Ernst, for her support of bestowing personhood status on a fetus. He says that would outlaw abortion, in-vitro fertilization and most kinds of contraception; she says she supports access to birth control and abortion in some circumstances.

Some voters have scoffed at the emphasis.

“They do a lot of yapping about how contraceptives have to do a lot with women’s health, which is a load of crap,” said Donald Johnson, 82, a staunch Republican in Clinton, Iowa. “If they want contraception, they can go and get it. It doesn’t cost that much. There’s no reason the government should be paying for it.”

On both abortion and same-sex marriage, recent AP-GfK polling has found likely voters more apt to trust Democrats than Republicans. But on issues that have captured more of voters’ attention this midterm season, such as the economy and protecting the country, Republicans have the advantage.

Republicans have emphasized terrorism and Ebola threats in the campaign’s closing days, though the poll suggests Ebola inspires less of a partisan preference than other issues.

Cindy Nath, a 59-year-old high school teacher in Colorado Springs, is most worried about economic inequality but also has concerns about reproductive freedom. A Democrat, she’s already cast an early ballot for Udall. But the issues her students discuss are very different — the Islamic State group and Ebola. “That’s what they’re talking about,” she said. “ISIS comes up every day.”

Women’s votes have shifted sharply between presidential years and midterm elections in recent contests, according to exit polling conducted for the AP and ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC. In 2012, women broke for Obama by an 11-point margin, while in 2010, when few candidates raised social issues as a major campaign theme, they split evenly between Democratic and Republican House candidates.

Atkinson noted that social issues usually poll low in priority but can be effective in defining candidates as too extreme. That’s how Democrats have won recently in Colorado. Although polling shows Udall slightly behind, his campaign believes he can win with a superior get-out-the-vote operation and by continuing to use women’s health issues to motivate key voting groups. Democrats are particularly targeting single women, whose participation dips in midterm elections.

The model is Sen. Michael Bennet’s 2010 come-from-behind win, where he similarly focused on women’s health. Still, a gender gap cuts both ways. Several recent polls in Colorado have shown Gardner’s advantage among men outpaces Udall’s among women.

But Jill Hanauer, a Denver-based Democratic strategist, said people should not mistake a temporary issue advantage for something permanent.

“Republicans have immediate issues to run on and Democrats have much broader, long-term ones like climate change and reproductive rights,” Hanauer said. “This election is one point in time, not a long-term trend.”

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 16-20, using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,608 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for all respondents.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

___

Agiesta, AP’s director of polling, reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Stacy A. Anderson and Emily Swanson contributed to this report.

___

Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com


AP-GfK Poll: 2 of 3 Americans think the threat posed by Islamic State is very important

By DEB RIECHMANN and EMILY SWANSON, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sixty-five percent of Americans now say the threat from the Islamic State group is very or even extremely important, and nearly half think the U.S. military response in Iraq and Syria has not gone far enough, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. Most want to see America’s partners step up their contribution to the fight,

Less than half, 43 percent, approve of the way President Barack Obama is handling the danger posed by the extremist militants.

Greg Franke, 24, of Columbia, South Carolina, was among the 55 percent of those who disapproved. Franke, a 24-year-old assistant editor at a research library, said he thought Obama was too hesitant in responding to the militants, who have employed brutal tactics to swiftly seize territory.

“I understand the need to be hesitant, but this was a group that was marching across parts of the Middle East, which is already unstable,” Franke said. “I think it warranted a swift and more decisive response.”

“I also think that his declaration that U.S. troops would not be involved was premature,” he said. “I don’t want U.S. troops involved. But I don’t think we need to close doors.”

A majority, 66 percent, favor the airstrikes the United States has been launching against the militants, yet 65 percent of those surveyed say Obama has not clearly explained America’s goal in fighting the Islamic State group. The president met with his national security team on Friday to discuss the Islamic State and talk via video teleconference with U.S. officials at the American Embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Irbil and Basra.

Here’s a look at the poll:

IS ENOUGH BEING DONE?

Forty-six percent said the U.S. military response has not gone far enough — up from 40 percent in September. Fifty-six percent said the military response from countries that have joined the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State militants has not gone far enough. The U.S. and partner countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been bombing Islamic State targets since August.

“It shouldn’t just be us. It shouldn’t just be ‘Oh, the United States is policing.’ It should be everyone is there policing and everybody believes this is wrong and everyone — worldwide — is trying to stop this,” said Kathy Robinson, 24, a Sterling, Virginia, woman who works at an information technology company.

At the same time, she thinks the United States eventually will put troops on the ground in the region “just to make sure nothing starts back up — to keep the peace.”

Only 32 percent think Obama has done a good job in clearly stating U.S. policy against the IS group. More than six in 10 of them think it’s either not likely or only moderately likely that the U.S. and its partners will achieve their goal in fighting IS.

___

ARE AMERICANS FOLLOWING DEVELOPMENTS IN IRAQ, SYRIA?

While 47 percent of those surveyed said there’s a very or extremely high risk of another terror attack inside the United States, just a third said they have been keenly following the news about the U.S. military action against IS. An additional 38 percent said they were following the action somewhat closely, and 31 percent said they were keeping up not too closely or not closely at all.

___

DO PEOPLE SUPPORT THE AIRSTRIKES?

While Americans support the airstrike, when it comes to supporting the idea of deploying U.S. ground troops, respondents were more guarded.

Thirty-seven percent said they opposed putting American forces on the ground, 33 percent favored the idea and 28 percent said they were neither for nor against it.

Obama has said repeatedly that he has no plans to send ground troops to Iraq or Syria. However, 28 percent thought it was very or extremely likely that he would, and an additional 45 percent thought it was moderately likely. Just 24 percent said it was not likely.

Michael Rainwater, 64, of Sammanish, Washington, doesn’t particularly want to see U.S. troops sent in, but thinks they might be deployed at some point.

“I think all of these things tend to escalate,” he said. “You can’t keep pouring fuel on the fire and expect the fire to get smaller. So every time we bomb or send in armed drones, you are creating more terrorists.”

He does not think, though, that the Islamic State is in a position to mount a 9/11-style attack against the U.S.

Said Rainwater, a retired software company owner: “It is more of a criminal entity because basically what they are doing is kidnapping people for ransom, taking over oil refineries for the income.”

___

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 16-20 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,608 adults, and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for all respondents. Respondents were selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were given free access.