CBS News Poll analysis by the CBS News Polling Unit: Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Fred Backus and Anthony Salvanto.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds a two-point lead against President Obama in a potential general election matchup, according to a new CBS News poll.
The survey found that Romney is the only GOP candidate to hold a lead over the president in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, though Texas Rep. Ron Paul trails by just one point.
Both Romney's lead over Mr. Obama - 47 percent to 45 percent - and Mr. Obama's lead over Paul - 46 percent to 45 percent - are within the survey's three percentage point margin of error.
The poll found Mr. Obama with leads of at least four points over the other major Republican presidential candidates. The president leads former Sen. Rick Santorum 47 percent to 43 percent; he leads Texas Gov. Rick Perry 49 percent to 42 percent; he leads former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman 48 percent to 41 percent; and he leads former Newt Gingrich 49 percent to 41 percent.
The survey was taken from Jan. 4-8, in the wake of Romney's narrow victory over Santorum in the Iowa caucuses.
Romney and Paul's relatively strong showings are driven by support from independent voters. Romney leads Mr. Obama by six points among independent voters, 45 percent to 59 percent, and Paul leads the president by seven points among independents, 47 percent to 40 percent. Independents favored Mr. Obama over the other GOP candidates.
Romney had the most support among Republican voters, garnering 90 percent support. The worst performing candidates among Republicans was Huntsman, with 80 percent support, followed by Gingrich and Paul, with 81 percent support each.
Romney's campaign has argued that Republicans should rally around the former Massachusetts governor in part because he is the most likely to beat Mr. Obama in November. His rivals, including Gingrich, have challenged that claim, with Gingrich pointing to Romney's inability to win over more than 30 percent of Republicans in state and national polls.
Romney, who , is far more likely than any other Republican to be seen as a general election winner; 49 percent say he has the best chance to beat Mr. Obama, followed by Gingrich at 13 percent.
Americans divided over Obama
Obama Approval Rating
The survey shows Mr. Obama's approval rating at 45 percent, a two point drop from last month. Forty-seven percent disapprove of Mr. Obama's performance on the job.
Eighty-four percent of Democrats approve of Mr. Obama's performance, while 86 percent of Republicans disapprove. Independents are not enthusiastic about Mr. Obama's performance: 49 percent disapprove, while 38 percent approve.
The president's job approval rating has been below 50 percent for most of the past year and a half. Presidents typically win reelection when their approval rating is above (or very near) 50 percent, and lose when it is below that level.
On the economy - the issue voters overwhelmingly cite as the most important - Mr. Obama's approval rating is just 38 percent, down two points from December. Fifty-five percent disapprove of his handling of the economy.
Mr. Obama fares better on foreign policy: There, 46 percent approve of his performance, while 37 percent disapprove.
Pessimism over the economy, Congress and the direction of the country
The survey finds that Americans are widely pessimistic about their economy, their country's direction and their representatives in Congress. Eighty percent describe the condition of the economy as fairly or very bad, while just 19 percent call it at least somewhat good.
Meanwhile, while 25 percent say the economy is getting better, a larger percentage - 29 percent - say it is getting worse. (Forty-five percent say the economy is stagnant.) And sixty-five percent say the nation is on the wrong track, while just 29 percent say it is headed in the right direction.
Still, there are signs of an improved perceptions: The percentage that describes the economy as at least somewhat good is up nine points since September, while the percentage that say the economy is getting better is up 13 points since that month. And the percentage that says the country is headed in the right direction is up 10 points since September.
In addition, Americans are optimistic about the New Year: 40 percent expect 2012 to be better than 2011, while just 11 percent expect 2012 to be worse. (46 percent said 2012 will be the same as 2011).
Congress remains deeply unpopular: Just 12 percent approve of the job Congress is doing, while 80 percent disapprove. Democrats are most critical, with 85 percent disapproval, followed by independents at 82 percent and Republicans at 74 percent.
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This poll was conducted by telephone from January 4-8, 2012 among 1,413 adults nationwide, including 1,247 interviews were conducted with registered voters. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The margin of error for the sample of registered voters could be plus or minus three points. The error for subgroups may be higher. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.