By Steve Holland
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sharpened his rhetoric on Wednesday in a push for his $447 billion jobs package, even as polls showed Americans skeptical of the plan and his Democrats' loss of a congressional seat raised new questions about his political strength.
In the latest stop on what has become a "pass this bill" tour, Obama used a campaign-style rally to press his warning to Republicans not to let election politics delay action on his proposals to reduce chronically high U.S. unemployment.
"You need leaders who will put country before party," Obama told a cheering crowd at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "The time for gridlock and games is over. The time for action is now."
Obama and the Republicans -- all looking toward elections in November 2012 -- are locked in their third major budget battle of the year, after a near-shutdown of the government in April, a last-minute deal to avert a government default in August and now negotiations over the president's jobs plan.
Battle lines have been drawn around familiar turf: Obama wants to raise taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations to pay for his plans; Republicans want to cut spending.
Obama has sought to pressure Republicans by taking his case on the road and accusing them of playing "political games" over jobs. But it is clear that his own 2012 re-election depends heavily on his ability to spur the stagnant American economy.
Obama's visit to the electoral swing state of North Carolina was aimed at building support for his jobs bill, which is designed to spur hiring through a mixture of tax cuts and additional government spending.
But doubts persist.
Just one in six people in a new National Journal/United Technologies poll said Obama's plan would reduce unemployment "a lot." About half of respondents thought it would improve employment at least "a little," and one quarter said the bill would not affect employment levels at all.
A Bloomberg poll showed that 51 percent of Americans doubt the jobs package would bring down the 9.1 percent jobless rate, while 40 percent thought it would.
Obama's approval ratings got a small lift -- to 47 percent from 45 percent -- after he unveiled his jobs plan last week and he remains ahead of all potential Republican rivals in the 2012 election, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed.
But a CNN/ORC poll found Obama's disapproval rating had reached a new high of 55 percent while only 36 percent of those surveyed approve of his handling of the economy.
Adding to Obama's woes, Republicans scored an upset victory in a congressional election on Tuesday in a Democratic stronghold of New York and trumpeted the win as a sign of voter discontent with the president's policies.
Less than a week after Obama unveiled his jobs plan, New York City voters handed a victory to Republican Bob Turner, a retired media executive, in a district held by a Democrat since the 1920s.
Turner -- winner of a special election for the seat vacated by former Representative Anthony Weiner, who resigned after a Twitter sex scandal -- said voters had sent the message 'Mr. President, we are on the wrong track.'"
But White House spokesman Jay Carney brushed aside the notion that this could mean trouble for Obama and Democrats in the November 2012 election.
"Special elections are often unique and their outcomes do not tell you very much about future regularly scheduled elections," Carney told reporters.
Taking aim at Republican resistance to parts of his job plan, Obama told his North Carolina audience that: "It's not about positioning for the election. It's about giving the American people a win."
"I get fed up with that kind of game playing," he said. "We're in a national emergency ... and instead of getting folks to rise up above partisanship in a spirit that says we're all in this together, you've got folks who are purposely dividing."
Obama's plan to bring down the jobless rate with a package of tax cuts to give incentives for hiring and spending paid for by tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations came under renewed fire from Republicans in Congress who say tax increases would hurt a weak economic recovery.
They also oppose more government spending but may be open to extending payroll tax cuts, one of the main elements of Obama's jobs plan.
Republicans have been careful not to completely declare the plan dead on arrival, and no prominent Republicans has raised the idea of putting off action until after the election.
(Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Vicki Allen)