By Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For the first time since early July, more Americans approve of the job President Barack Obama is doing than disapprove, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll that shows his approval rating now at 50 percent.
The poll, taken March 8-11 on the heels of reports that 227,000 jobs were added to the U.S. economy in February, indicates that Obama's rating has risen by 2 percentage points during the past month. The percentage of Americans who disapprove of the Democratic president was 48 percent, down from 49 percent in February.
Some other polls have shown a recent dip in Obama's approval rating, and linked that to rising gasoline prices.
But for most Americans, other economic trends during the past month have been relatively positive. Obama appears to be benefiting from that, and perhaps from a bitter Republican presidential campaign that at times has focused on divisive social issues such as abortion.
"The economy is improving," said Ipsos pollster Cliff Young. "Not by leaps and bounds but people feel that things are getting better." The Reuters/Ipsos poll also found that Americans' confidence in the direction of the country is ticking upward. In the poll, 37 percent of those surveyed said the United States is headed in the right direction, up from 32 percent in February.
ROMNEY STRUGGLES TO ATTRACT MAJORITY
The poll indicates that more Republicans nationwide continue to favor former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney over his three rivals for the party's presidential nomination.
However, Romney still is not close to having the support of a majority of Republicans in the race to determine who will face Obama in the November 6 election.
Romney received the support of 37 percent of Republicans, compared with 32 percent for Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator.
Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich was backed by 12 percent of Republicans, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul was supported by 11 percent.
Romney's support rose by 8 percentage points during the past month while Santorum - who attracted support from conservatives with a series of controversial comments on religion and social issues such as contraception - rose by 14 percentage points.
While Santorum appeared to benefit from the change in tone of the Republican campaign, perhaps no candidate benefited more than the Democratic president, whose party made a point of casting Republicans' tough talk on abortion, contraception and other issues as an attack on women's rights.
In a survey of registered voters, Obama led Romney 52 to 41 percent in a head-to-head match-up, nearly double the margin from February. Obama led Santorum 52 to 42 percent, and Gingrich 54 to 37 percent.
Obama's fortunes have been improved by a drum beat of positive economic news. The unemployment rate held steady at 8.3 percent in February and was buoyed by three straight months of jobs growth.
Until November, Obama's fate will be hitched to the economy. And rising gas prices could stall the Democrat's current momentum. Romney, Santorum and Gingrich are counting on that, and in recent days have sought to blame Obama for the rising prices.
Looking to November, Young said, the poll "reinforces that Obama is the favorite."
The Reuters/Ipsos telephone poll of 1,084 adults included 554 respondents who identified themselves as Democrats, 421 as Republicans, and 109 as independents. The total respondents included 937 registered voters.
The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for all respondents; 3.3 points for registered voters; 4.2 points for Democrats; 4.9 points for Republicans, and 9.8 points for independents.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Jackie Frank)