WASHINGTON - The Republicans' presidential primary slugfest has all of our attention right now, but the general election race is really the more interesting story.
The toxic contest between former governor Mitt Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich for their party's nomination probably still has a long way to go before it is over. But the head-to-head race to deny Barack Obama a second term is already well underway.
Surprisingly consistent voter preferences have been pouring in for months now, and the latest returns show the president is struggling against one of the top Republican candidates.
These preferences are the polling numbers in the head-to-head match-ups between Obama and the Republican contenders, and what they show will most likely determine who the GOP's standard-bearer will be this fall.
Last week, the Gallup Poll surveyed registered voters in 12 key swing states that will probably decide who wins in November. That poll showed voters were "almost evenly split between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney."
These swing states included Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Actually, Romney beats Obama in these swing states by 48 percent to 47 percent, edging out the president by one point.
Among registered voters nationally, Romney and Obama are in a dead heat 48 percent to 48 percent.
But Romney's stronger showing among the swing states -- where the jobless rate is about 10 percent to 13 percent in several of them -- trumps the national numbers because half a dozen of these swing states are among the biggest electoral prizes that will pick the winner.
Gingrich, the weakest of Romney's rivals in the match-ups, does poorly against Obama in the key swing states, trailing the president by 14 points, 54 percent to 40 percent. He trails Obama by 12 points nationally.
Rep. Ron Paul loses to Obama by 43 percent to 50 percent, while former Sen. Rick Santorum does a teeny bit better, losing by 44 percent to 51 percent.
Gallup has been conducting the head-to-head polls in these swing states since last October, late November/early December, and more recently between Jan. 24-28.