Donald Lambro

There were two notable changes in the contest for the presidency this week. Barack Obama's job approval score rose and the race for the Republican nomination appears to be between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

It would be premature to say that Obama's prospects of winning a second term have improved much. But a Gallup Poll Thursday shows his job approval score creeping up to 46 percent and his disapproval score inching down a bit to 47 percent.

He's still in danger of becoming a one term president, but it's a million miles in political terms between now and November 6 and his job approval numbers do appear to be tightening. And the race for the White House will very likely tighten up in the months to come, depending on the GOP race and what happens in the economy.

Tuesday's Iowa Republican caucuses have winnowed the field to two major candidates, though this may change in the primary contests later on this month.

Libertarian Ron Paul finished in a disappointing third place. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich fell further to the back of the pack with 13 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, at 10 percent, is all but finished, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota dropped out of the race after she finished in last place.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, is now the conservative alternative to Romney, though he still faces an uphill battle to replicate his Iowa performance in the primaries to come.

Santorum surged to the front of the pack on a wave of evangelical support on the social and religious issues that he's championed throughout his career. His supporters in Iowa were the same voters who lifted Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the Hawkeye state in 2008 -- only to run out of steam after the New Hampshire primary.

Santorum pulled off his razor thin second place finish by virtually living in Iowa over the past six months, visiting all 99 counties in a pickup truck, preaching a right to life message against abortion, his opposition to gay marriage, and the coarsening decline in our culture.

The weak, jobless Obama economy is issue one, two, three and four in this election cycle, but Santorum ran as the race's fiercest social issue warrior.

His first act as president, he said, would be to sign an executive order banning all federal financial support for abortions.

But can that message draw similar support in the party primaries to come this month in New Hampshire, where Romney has a virtually prohibitive lead? Or South Carolina and Florida where the unemployment rate is still stuck at a catastrophic 10 percent.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.