By JENNIFER JACOBS
and JASON NOBLE
The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowans are feeling more optimistic about where the nation is headed, and they're giving President Barack Obama the credit.
Obama is up 5 points in Iowa, leading Republican Mitt Romney 47 percent to 42 percent, according to a new Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, although the results also contain signs of hope for Romney, political strategists said.
Obama barely edges Romney on the question of which candidate would do the best job of fixing the economy, the primary argument of Romney's campaign, the poll shows.
Romney has gained an edge with his frequent claims in the campaign's final weeks that he can best quell the country's snarling partisanship by bringing Democrats and Republicans together. But he's having trouble getting Iowa voters to trust him.
In what continues to shape up as an ultra-tight race nationally, losing Iowa, with its small cache of six Electoral College votes, would complicate Romney's chances for winning the presidency.
Democratic pollster Margie Omero said: "If Romney can't catch up here, he probably can't catch up elsewhere. Without Iowa and Ohio, Romney's path to victory is incredibly narrow."
GOP strategist David Polyansky countered that Romney can and will win the White House, with or without Iowa.
"There is no doubt winning Iowa would be a fantastic plus for Governor Romney," he said. "However, more than one pathway exists for the governor that does not necessarily include Iowa."
The poll of 800 Iowa likely voters was conducted by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines from Tuesday through Friday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
"There are things that could happen today and Monday that would shape the final outcome," said pollster J. Ann Selzer. "Nobody need be over-confident."
Republicans voiced optimism over one glaring difference in voters' opinions since the Register's late September poll: Romney is now seen as more likely than Obama to unite people despite political differences, said GOP strategist Alex Castellanos.
"Being a 'uniter not a divider' is a prerequisite for a president getting things done in Washington, which is what voters are looking for," Castellanos said. "Romney may be winning the 'delivering results' battle."
But the poll bears mostly rays of sunshine for Obama. Not only does he lead in the horse race, he inspires more confidence than Romney in handling relations with other countries, and he bests Romney considerably in four of five character traits tested.
The poll shows that 42 percent of likely voters have already cast ballots, including more than half of all seniors who plan to participate in this election. That's a striking difference from four years ago, when the Iowa Poll showed only 28 percent had mailed in an absentee ballot or voted at a local elections office or satellite station at this point.
Said Omero, the Democratic pollster: "With so many Iowans already having voted, and with reports showing more early voting Democrats than Republicans, it will be very difficult for Romney to catch up."
But GOP strategists expect Election Day voters will be substantially higher in Iowa than this poll forecasts. Historically in Iowa, a higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans participate in early voting, but a higher percentage of Republicans turn out on Election Day. Republican nominee John McCain won more votes than Obama on Election Day in 2008. In his 2004 re-election bid, President George W. Bush also won more votes in Iowa on Election Day and won the state, overcoming Democrat John Kerry's lead in early voting.
Obama is up 22 points among early voters. Among those planning to vote on Tuesday, Romney wins by 8 points.
A hurdle for Romney: Iowa's economic outlook is brightening, and that weakens Romney's argument for change, Castellanos said.
Likely Iowa voters are less pessimistic and more confident that the nation is on the right track than they have been since May 2003, in the days of a healthier economy and "mission accomplished."
Fully 48 percent of likely voters think things are going well right now. About the same proportion, 49 percent, think the nation is on the wrong track, an improvement from a month ago when 54 percent said wrong track.
As the national economy has brightened slowly but steadily, Iowa's outlook has been even better. Job growth here outpaces the nation as a whole. Unemployment in Iowa is 5.2 percent -- 2.7 points lower than the national rate. Some Iowa counties are approaching full employment and even facing labor shortages. Other bright spots have been the farm economy, on a years-long upswing, and a harvest this year that beat drought-rattled expectations.
Poll respondent Donyale Crutcher, 43, a forklift operator from Cedar Rapids and independent voter, said that he sees lots of once laid-off Iowans going back to work. "I'm working. People that I know who got laid off are working."
Asked about feeling inspired and optimistic or angry and pessimistic, 65 percent of likely Iowa voters said optimistic.
Obama's supporters are slightly more likely than Romney supporters to describe their mood as inspired and optimistic (76 percent to 62 percent of Romney supporters).
Obama gets higher marks than Romney for being the candidate who "cares the most about people like you" and for being the stronger leader.
More Iowa voters think Romney would be better at reducing the federal budget than Obama.
Poll respondent Gerry Mullane, 69, a Republican from Des Moines who works as a professional recruiter, thinks Romney has the ideal business skills the country needs.
"I think that we definitely need a change, and I just don't think that our country is going in the right direction at all," she said.
Romney's personal attributes are suffering: He is seen as less trustworthy by a margin of 10 points, less honest by 10 points and less caring than the president by 15 points.
"Mitt Romney goes into the final few days of this general election bearing the bruises of two hard-fought campaigns," Castellanos said. "He is still suffering the scars of the tough negative campaign run against him by his own party in the GOP primary and those inflicted upon him in the general by Barack Obama."
Obama has roundly attacked Romney in negative TV ads and at rallies in Iowa, attempting to undermine voters' opinions of Romney's character, his business career at Bain Capital and his record governing in Massachusetts. Obama also has sought to label Romney as someone whose positions shift depending on his audience.
The president has run 51 different TV ads here, spending $20.6 million in Iowa alone.
Just 2 percent remain undecided, and 5 percent declined to share their choice.
Seven percent say they could still change their minds. Among that small group, a plurality of 48 percent describe themselves as angry and pessimistic, double the overall average.
Altogether, these results show a race mostly unchanged since the Register's Sept. 23-26 poll, Omero said.