* A thaw in the public’s view of the economy? With unemployment expected to remain unforgivingly locked between eight and nine percent for the rest of this year, Obama’s team has to hope that, at a minimum, the public senses that the economy is at least moving in the right direction on Election Day 2012. Political scientists view this as a key metric for judging an imcumbent’s chances amid a bad economy.

New polling just released by the Post and ABC News suggests some grounds for optimism on this score, even if the electorate remains deeply dispirited and the political environment remains exceptionally challenging.

The poll finds that the percentage who think the economy has begun to recover has jumped by nine points to 45 percent since last November, even as the number who think it hasn’t has dropped by the same amount, down to 54 percent. While these numbers are still difficult — and while they have fluctuated over time — that’s a net 18 point swing in favor of the idea that the economy is recovering.

As the ABC News team puts it: “The nation’s economic ice jam is showing tentative signs of a thaw.” What’s more, Obama's approval on job creation has edged upwards to 45-51, among his best in the last two years. This reveals the degree to which Obama’s fate is tied to the economy; after the relatively good jobs numbers in December and the dip of the unemployment rate to 8.5 percent, Obama has gained. If the economy dips, he’ll surely sink again along with it.

Meanwhile, Obama is still struggling among independents. They prefer Mitt Romney to Obama, and they split evenly on whether Obama or Congressional Republicans can be trusted to create jobs and protect the middle class. More broadly, 52 percent of Americans overall say Obama has accomplished little or nothing, again reflecting lingering sourness over the economy.

The election will turn heavily on whether Americans conclude that things are getting better at an acceptable pace or whether they decide that Obama, however well intentioned, have not proven up to the task. That’s why Romney continually claims, based on dishonest “net” job loss metric, that jobs have been destroyed on Obama’s watch. Romney’s bumper sticker argument isn’t easy to rebut, which is why the Obama team had better come up with a good, succinct way to tell its story, one that persuasively reminds people just how horrific a situation he inherited upon taking office, and how much we’ve progressed since then.

By the way, on that score, 54 percent still blame Bush more for the current mess, versus 29 percent who blame Obama.

* Why conservatives dread Mitt Romney: One thing that worries conservatives about Mitt Romney is that his previous positions could make it impossible for him to prosecute the case against Obama. They think he’ll be unable to draw a sharp ideological contrast between the two without feeding into his greatest vulnerability — the sense that he’s ideologically malleable and opportunistic.

The pro-Gingrich Super PAC is out with a new ad in South Carolina designed to drive the point home:

* Newt-mentum in South Carolina!!! Is Newt surging in South Carolina? Talk radio and leading conservatives are buzzing with talk about Gingrich’s performance in Monday’s debate, and the Romney campaign has organized a conference call specifically to hit back at Gingrich’s attacks. Meanwhile, there are new signs of fluidity in the South Carolina contest.

Still, this comes as evangelical leaders have mostly coalesced behind Santorum as the most credible alternative to Romney. Because none of these guys will bow out, Romney continues to benefit from the resulting split among conservatives.

* Is “15 percent” Romney really the right candidate for this moment? As I’ve been saying, the GOP is taking a huge gamble by nominating Romney at this particular cultural and political moment, and Alec MacGillis has a very good piece digging into the unanswered questions surrounding Romney’s “15 percent problem” and the debate it will now force about the unfairness of our tax system:

The country is going to spend much of the next year talking taxes. And leading one side of the debate is going to be a silver-templed exemplar of how inequitable the system has become. Again: is this really the man Republicans want for this moment?

* Romney’s “taxing day”: Relatedly, the DNC is out with a new Web video recapping the brutal media coverage of Mitt Romney’s concession yesterday that he pays a lower tax rate than many middle class taxpayers — and continuing to pressure him to release his returns.

One thing still remaining to be confirmed: Whether Romney pays a lower rate on the payouts he continues to scoop up from Bain as part of the deal he struck upon leaving the company.

* Romney wants unlimited campaign contributions: The Post editorial board blisters Romney’s call for doing away with all limits on the size of contributions to campaigns. It’s still puzzling that this hasn’t gotten more attention, given that this could enhance the influence of the wealthy to an untold degree, and how neatly that dovetails with the “candidate of the one percent” narrative.

* Presidential race tight in Ohio: A new Quinnipiac poll finds Obama leading Romney in Ohio, 44-42, though that’s within the margin of error and his approval rating in the state is upside down, 44-51.

The question remains whether the big labor victory in the state will give Obama’s grassroots operation a boost that will carry over.

* Obama has moral high ground over GOP: A new CBS News poll has a striking finding: 60 percent think Obama is trying to work with House Republicans, while only 27 percent think the GOP is reciprocating.

The question, as always, is whether this will matter. The danger is that voters may ask why Obama hasn’t gotten his policies passed in spite of GOP opposition, and conclude his failure to do so simply proves he’s ineffective.

* Dems confident about payroll tax cut fight: Senior Democratic aides think they have the leverage in round two of the payroll tax cut fight as they enter into talks with a House GOP weakened by last year’s cave. That said, Dems have quietly dropped their demand for a millionaire surtax to pay for it, so...

* Will Dems pull back on Bush tax cuts? Relatedly, there’s a spirited debate under way in Dem circles over whether they should stop pushing for the tax cuts to expire at the $250,000 level and instead make the threshold $1 million, a sign Republicans have spooked Dems with all their talk about raising taxes on “small businesses.”

* Is Obama playing the long game? Kevin Drum has been doing some nice work on the question of whether Obama has actually been playing the long game while appearing too conciliatory towards the GOP. In his latest installment, a Dem staffer makes an interesting case that his strategy is paying off in unseen ways.

* And Elizabeth Warren is apparently a hypocrite for supporting higher taxes on herself: Scott Brown’s campaign claims that Elizabeth Warren’s personal wealth somehow makes her an “elitist hypocrite” — why it’s hypocritical for her to support policies that would set herself back financially is unclear — leading a Boston writer to charge Brown with “crass warfare.”

What else?