Boosted by improved public confidence in his economic stewardship, President Obama for the first time holds a clear edge over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a hypothetical general-election matchup, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Romney, who notched his second consecutive victory Saturday by easily winning the Nevada caucuses, continues to solidify his position as the front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination. But as the contest has grown more negative, public impressions of the top Republican contenders have soured, as has the former Massachusetts governor’s standing as a general-election candidate.

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President Barack Obama is shown in the Roosevelt Room

Obama remains a polarizing figure, with Americans closely divided on whether he deserves reelection as well as on many aspects of his performance in office.Although better than they were a few months ago, his ratings on handling the economy and job creation remain negative, with intensity continuing to run against him.The poll results underscore how important framing the contest could be to the outcome.

If the fall campaign becomes largely a referendum on Obama’s tenure in office, as Republicans hope it will, he could struggle to win a second term — barring an economic recovery that vastly outperforms expectations. If, however, it becomes a choice between the incumbent and the challenger, as Obama advisers predict it will, the president’s prospects would be brighter.

The survey was conducted Wednesday through Saturday. During that time, the president and the Republican candidates were in the spotlight: Obama had just completed his State of the Union address and held campaign-style rallies in battleground states, and the Republicans were in the middle of a series of primaries and caucuses.

Overall, 55 percent of those who are closely following the campaign say they disapprove of what the GOP candidates have been saying.

By better than 2 to 1, Americans say the more they learn about Romney, the less they like him. Even among Republicans, as many offer negative as positive assessments of him on this question. Judgments about former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who denounced Romney on Saturday night in Nevada, are about 3 to 1 negative.

Meanwhile, the president’s recent remarks are better reviewed. Among the roughly 6 in 10 Americans who heard or read about the president’s State of the Union address, 57 percent say they approve of most of what he laid out.

Obama’s overall approval rating stands at 50 percent, the highest in a Post-ABC News poll since a brief run above 50 percent immediately after Osama bin Laden was killed in early May. Still, nearly as many — 46 percent — disapprove. Among registered voters, 49 percent say Obama’s performance warrants a second term; exactly as many say it doesn’t.

Among political independents, who are likely to determine the outcome of the election, 47 percent approve and 50 percent disapprove of the way he is handling his job. The president’s approval rating among independents had dipped as low as 34 percent in the fall, and just a month ago, he faced a 10-point deficit here.

Read more at The Washington Post