CBS News Poll analysis by the CBS News Polling Unit: Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Fred Backus and Anthony Salvanto.
President Obama holds a significant lead over each of his potential Republican opponents in the general election, according to a poll released Tuesday by CBS News and the New York Times. That includes Mitt Romney, who was even with Mr. Obama last month.
The new survey shows the president leading Romney by six points, 48 percent to 42 percent, among registered voters. Last month, the two men were tied at 45 percent each.
Mr. Obama's lead over former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has surged to a lead in national polls, is eight points: 49 percent to 41 percent.
Romney's drop in support against the president is attributable to a shift among independents. Last month, independents favored the former Massachusetts governor by eight points over Mr. Obama. In the new survey, Mr. Obama holds the edge, leading Romney among independents by nine points.
The president holds double-digit leads over the other two GOP candidates in the race, Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mr. Obama leads Paul 50 percent to 39 percent - an 11 point margin - and he leads Gingrich 54 percent to 36 percent, a difference of 18 points.
The findings come as the GOP candidates seek to cast themselves as the potential nominee with the best chance of beating Mr. Obama in November. Santorum is out with a
, according to the new survey. Santorum had the support of 30 percent of GOP primary voters, followed by Romney at 27 percent, Paul at 12 percent and Gingrich at 10 percent. (The difference between Santorum and Romney is statistically insignificant, as it is within the poll's three point margin of error.) Santorum, who has gained momentum from a , was at just 16 percent nationally last month.
Romney is widely seen as the candidate with the best chance to beat Mr. Obama: 55 percent of Republican primary voters say Romney is the most electable candidate. No other candidate is seen as having the best chance to win by more than 15 percent of GOP primary voters.
But Romney is not seen as reflecting Republican primary voters' values. Just 23 percent say Romney is the candidate who best represents their values, while 39 percent choose Santorum.
Roughly one in three Republican primary voters say Romney, who has been attacked over his moderate record as Massachusetts governor, holds views that are not conservative enough. By contrast, only seven percent say that Santorum's views are insufficiently conservative. Santorum leads Romney by at least twelve points among the most conservative members of the GOP: self-described conservatives, Tea Partiers and white evangelicals.
And while at least half of GOP primary voters say Santorum, Gingrich and Paul would offer policies that would be "very different" than Mr. Obama, just 36 percent say Romney's policies would be "very different" than those of the president.
Santorum is also seen as the candidate most likely to help the middle class: Thirty-two percent of GOP primary voters say Santorum would be most likely to help middle class Americans, while 19 percent cite Romney, 18 percent cite Gingrich and 18 percent cite Paul. Among registered voters overall, 53 percent say Romney favors the rich over other Americans; only 31 percent say the same of Santorum.
Romney has pointed to his business experience to say argue he is well prepared to steer the U.S. economy, which voters overwhelmingly cite as their top issue. But the new survey shows Santorum with a slight - if significantly insignificant - edge when it comes to Republican primary voters' confidence in their ability to manage the economy. Twenty-seven percent are "very" confident Santorum could manage the economy, compared to 25 percent for Romney, 24 percent for Gingrich and 17 percent for Paul.
Despite his lead in the national poll, Santorum is the least well known of the Republican presidential candidates. Roughly half of registered voters say they don't know enough to form an opinion about Santorum; those who do are split, with 27 percent holding a favorable view and 25 percent holding an unfavorably view.
Romney, meanwhile, is solidly in negative territory: While 26 percent of registered voters view him favorably, 40 percent view him unfavorably. Gingrich's favorability numbers are even worse: Just 16 percent view him favorably, while 54 percent view him unfavorably.
Republican primary voters remain dissatisfied with their candidates: 62 percent say they want more choices while 34 percent say they are happy with the field. Sixty percent of GOP primary voters who have picked a candidate say they could still change their mind, while 39 percent say they have settled on a candidate.
The survey, conducted from February 8-13, also found Mr. Obama's approval rating reaching 50 percent amid rising optimism over the economy.
This poll was conducted by telephone from February 8-13, 2012 among 1,197 adults nationwide.
997 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.