The new Post-ABC poll shows that “46 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job; 50 percent disapprove. That’s a mirror image of his 50 to 46 positive split in early February. The downshift is particularly notable among independents — 57 percent of whom now disapprove — and among white people without college degrees, with disapproval among this group now topping approval by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, at 66 versus 28 percent.”

While some of this is certainly attributable to gas prices, his handling of the economy is also a sore point with voters. Thirty-eight percent approve of his handling of the economy while 59 percent disapprove. Moreover, President Obama’s “strongly disapprove” number (39 percent) leads the “strongly approve” number (28 percent), highlighting that anti-Obama voters are more intense and plentiful than pro-Obama voter.

Voters are split 49-49 percent on whether they think the economy is recovering. Of those who see improvement, a whopping 74 percent think it as a weak recovery. That is an electorate ripe for the argument that we can do better than the Obama economy.

Obama also has a substantial problem with independents. The Post’s pollster tells me that Obama trails Mitt Romney 42-50 among independents; against Rick Santorum he trails by a smaller margin, 45 to 48 percent. Overall, Romney leads Obama by a statistically insignificant point (47 to 46 percent), while Santorum trails 46-49 percent.

In a head-to-head match, Romney bests Santorum 33-29 percent among registered Republicans. And there is that gender gap again; Romney leads Santorum by one point among men and by five points among women.To a degree, Romney is expanding his appeal within the party. He ties Santorum among those who favor the Tea Party (although trails by 6 points among those who “strongly” support the Tea Party). Likewise, he leads Santorum among “somewhat conservative” Republicans (33 to 31 percent) but trails among “very conservative Republicans by double digits. As we are seeing in Alabama and Mississippi, Romney (27 percent) and Santorum (28 percent) are essentially deadlocked in the South. (A caution: The sample size is small for some of these comparisons.)

This does not mean, however, that Romney is unacceptable to a large chunk of voters who favor other candidates; To the contrary, Santorum, Gingrich and Romney each get just less than one-third of the “second choice” votes.

We should keep in mind that we are months before the election. But the notion of some that Obama has this election in the bag is belied by the data. And despite all the punditry and theatrics, it seems that GOP primary voters are in the process of selecting the candidate who matches up best against Obama and who has the most appeal among the critical independent voter.