WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's popularity among women, minorities and independents is giving him an early edge over his likely GOP rival, Mitt Romney, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
The Democratic president also earns strong marks on empathy, sincerity, likeability and social issues. But Americans are split over which candidate can best handle the economy, which might open pathways for Romney six months before the November election.
Half of registered voters say they would back Obama in November, while 42 percent favor Romney, the AP-GfK poll found. About a quarter of voters indicated they are persuadable, meaning they are undecided or could change their minds before Election Day.
Forty-one percent of voters say they are certain to vote for Obama, and 32 percent say they are locked in for Romney.
The nationwide poll of 1,004 adults comes as Romney is focusing heavily on fundraising after gaining endorsements from of all but one of his GOP rivals, and conservative voters are reminding politicians of their muscle. Republicans in Indiana on Tuesday ousted a six-term senator accused of being too friendly to Obama, and North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
On Wednesday, however, Obama endorsed gay marriage, a sign that he is eager to fire up young and liberal voters even if it costs him some support in battleground states such as North Carolina, which he narrowly won in 2008.
In the AP-GfK poll, Americans give Obama an edge over Romney on numerous attributes, but handling the economy is a key exception. The public is divided over whether Obama or Romney would do a better job on the issue that strategists say will dominate the fall election. Forty-six percent prefer Obama on this topic, and 44 percent prefer Romney.
Romney, who oversaw the restructuring of several companies while at Bain Capital, says he understands the private sector better than Obama does. Democrats dispute the claim.
If the economic recovery continues to limp slowly, as it has in the past two months, Republicans say voters will become more open to Romney's campaign.
On other issues: Half of adults say Obama is the stronger leader, while 39 percent choose Romney; Obama is more trusted to handle taxes and social issues, and to protect the country.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who has changed his stance on some important issues over the past 18 years, may need to shore up his image on questions of credibility and sincerity. More than half of adults say Obama is the one who more often says what he believes, while 31 percent choose Romney on that measure.
Morris Griffin, 76, a Democratic-leaning voter from Liberty, Miss., is among those who question Romney's consistency.
"He changes his mind every other day," said Griffin, a Marine veteran. "This is the guy that didn't want to save the automotive industry some time back, and now he says he's the one that had idea for saving it."
Still, Griffin said there is a 25 percent chance he will change his mind and not vote for Obama.
Obama's biggest advantages are among women and minorities. His biggest problem is with whites who lack college degrees.
Female voters favor the president by 54 percent to 39 percent. Men are evenly split, with 46 percent for each candidate. That's largely in line with the 2008 "gender gap" that helped Obama win the White House.
Romney draws the backing of half of all white voters, while Obama gets 43 percent. White voters with college degrees split 50 percent for Obama to 46 percent for Romney. Whites without college degrees break 53 percent for Romney to 38 percent for Obama.
The president continues to draw strong support from black voters; 90 percent favor him; only 5 percent back Romney.
Obama holds an edge among independent voters, an important but easily misunderstood group. Independents neither identify with nor lean toward the Democratic or Republican parties, but not all are swing voters. Some are strongly liberal or conservative, so they can be just as committed to a candidate as some partisans.
The AP-GfK poll found 42 percent of independents backing Obama, 30 percent backing Romney and about a quarter undecided. Fifty-five percent said they remain persuadable.
Marianne Noble, a retired teacher from Eveleth, Minn., is an independent voter who supports Obama. "I think he's a good president," she said. "He needs a little more time, four more years to fulfill his potential."
Noble, 83, said Romney "skirts around certain issues. He's not very committed to a certain stance."
But Rebecca Fabrizio, a Republican from Henderson, Ky., said she will gladly vote against Obama.
Romney "is not my favorite, but out of my choices, that would be the one," said Fabrizio, 49, a retired nurse with three grown children.
She said Obama "wants to be president of the united world. He wants to be so loved... king of the world." Romney, she said, "is more willing to listen to both sides of the story, get all the facts before he decides something."
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted May 3-7, by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,004 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points. The poll included interviews with 871 registered voters; results among that group have an error margin of plus or minus 4.2 points.
Associated Press writer Stacy Anderson, Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.