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.

While Santorum focused his shoe-string campaign on Iowa, he does not have a national campaign organization to match Romney's, nor does he have access to the kind of financial support the former governor will have over the ensuring months.

Moreover, Romney is expected to come out of the New Hampshire primary with the wind at his back and that's going to give him advantages in January's two remaining primaries.

Gallup did some historical research this week on how the winner in New Hampshire fared after its primary and here's what they found:

"Since 1976 -- the first year in the modern nominating era in which there was a competitive Republican contest -- the leader after New Hampshire has ultimately won the nomination."

Even so, Romney still faces daunting difficulties after the Granite State's contest.

He has been running behind Gingrich in South Carolina as well as in Florida, though that was before the Georgia congressman's decline amidst revelations that he made a fortune as an adviser-lobbyist for the federal government's huge home mortgage agency, Freddie Mac, which was at the core of the subprime housing scandal.

Could Gingrich, who now threatens to take the gloves off and strike back at Mitt Romney's attack ads, make a comeback?

It's possible that could occur, though Gallup reported Thursday that its polling "shows Romney (26 percent) holding a slight edge over Newt Gingrich (22 percent) with Ron Paul a distance third at 13 percent."

Gallup said Santorum was next at 8 percent, although his numbers have risen in recent days leading up to Iowa, averaging 12 percent on Monday and Tuesday. Post-Iowa polls will undoubtedly show his numbers climbing.

Still, the question about Santorum is whether he has staying power and the ability to reach out to independents who will likely decide this election.

His home state of Pennylvania will be a key battleground this fall, but voters in that swing state fired him by a nearly 18-point margin in his 2006 re-election bid.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of Obama's uptick to 46 percent his job approval polls, after many months in the low 40s? Some of it may be due to a slight improvement in the consumer confidence surveys, and a feeling in parts of the electorate that the economy is improving slightly.

Some of it may have to do with dissident constituencies in his own party who are coming home and supporting him again.

But the overall political trends and a very weak Obama economy still remain a hostile environment for Obama.

Last month, Moody Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi, the news media's go to guy on the economy, gave this dismal forecast for 2012:

"Since businesses are expected to remain cautious, 2012 is unlikely to be a breakout year for the economy... thus there will be little reduction in unemployment."

"How long it will take to get the business cycle back into gear isn't yet apparent, but it seems unlikely to happen until after the 2012 election. Perhaps it will be the election itself," he added.

Translation: Lower unemployment and a much stronger economy isn't going to happen until Obama leaves office.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.