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COLUMBUS — As occurred in the final days before the Michigan primary, the contest between GOP presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum has tightened considerably, according to a new poll released Friday.The Quinnipiac Poll released just before next week’s Super Tuesday Ohio primary shows that former Pennsylvania senator Santorum now holds a four-point lead, 35 percent to 31 percent, over the former Massachusetts governor among likely Republican primary voters. That has narrowed from a seven point shown by the same poll on Monday.
That makes the race a statistical tie, well within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
“A third of the electorate say they still might change their mind,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Within five days until Super Tuesday, they certainly will be exposed to enough negative television ads to provide fodder for those who might want to switch — or switch off.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich registered with 17 percent of voters compared to 12 percent for Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Mr. Brown noted that, like in Michigan, it is clearly a two-man race for the Buckeye vote.
The numbers were released just as a separate Ohio Poll by the University of Cincinnati showed that the man the winner of the GOP nomination will face in November, President Barack Obama, remains under water in the opinion of Buckeye voters.
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Forty-seven percent said they approve of the job the Democratic president is doing, up from 43 percent in the last Ohio Poll on the subject in July. The higher number, however, is still below the 50 percent mark generally seen as providing comfort for the re-election chances of an incumbent president.
His disapproval rating was 49 percent, down a single point, with 4 percent not registering an opinion.
Voters give him a higher score on his handling of foreign policy than the economy — 49 percent compared to 43 percent. The poll took place before Friday’s announcement that Ohio’s unemployment rate had dropped again in February from 7.9 percent to 7.7 percent.
Mr. Obama is uncontested on the Democratic ticket going into Super Tuesday when 10 states including Ohio will hold primary elections or caucuses on Tuesday with the biggest prizes being Georgia, with 76 delegates, and battleground Ohio with 66. Also voting are Tennessee, Vermont, Mr. Romney’s adopted home of Massachusetts, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alaska, Idaho, and Virginia.
Both Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich failed to qualify for the Virginia ballot and are non-factors there. Mr. Santorum’s campaign also failed to place delegates obligated to him on the ballot in three Ohio congressional districts, including the 9th stretching along Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland. That means he starts out with a deficit of nine delegates here.
While the Quinnipiac Poll released Monday had suggested Santorum voters were more locked into their choice than those for Mr. Romney, that has tightened as well in recent days.
Quinnipiac showed that 34 percent of voters in general said they could still change their minds. That number drops to 30 percent for Mr. Santorum’s supporters compared to 34 percent for Mr. Romney.
Mr. Santorum also fares a little better among the GOP electorate in their general opinion of the candidates. Mr. Santorum has a 57 percent approval rating compared to 53 percent for Mr. Romney.
As each candidate has tried to persuade voters that he is the true conservative in the race, Mr. Santorum won stronger support among those who identify with the tea party wing of the party, 42 percent to 25 percent over Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney, however, scored much better among those identifying themselves as moderates, 46 percent to 26 percent.
The poll questioned 517 likely GOP voters via land-line and cell phones on Wednesday and Thursday in the immediate wake of the results in Michigan and Arizona. Mr. Romney handily won Arizona and eked out a narrow win in the popular vote in his native state of Michigan.
Mr. Santorum had claimed a 15-15 tie in delegates coming out of the state, but on Thursday the Michigan Republican Party reinterpreted the rules on how to distribute the state’s two at-large votes. That handed Mr. Romney a 16-14 delegate lead, causing the Santorum campaign to cry foul.
In addition to the prior Quinnipiac Poll showing Mr. Santorum with a seven-point lead, an Ohio Poll released Tuesday had Mr. Santorum up by 11 points. Both polls were completed before the results of the Michigan primary were known.
The Ohio Poll released Friday also asked voters about their opinion of Republican Gov. John Kasich. The governor is even further under water than Mr. Obama, but his numbers have also improved slightly since the July poll.
Voters now give Mr. Kasich an approval rating of 44 percent, up 2 percentage points, and a disapproval rating of 42 percent, down Fourteen percent said they have no opinion.