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Is Obama unbeatable in the 2012 presidential election?

The economy appears to be heading in the right direction, albeit slowly. Add to the mix Obama’s formidable skill as a campaigner, and the 2012 presidential election might tilt his way.

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President Barack Obama speaks during a bipartisan meeting of governors in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 28.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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The Republican presidential field is barely getting organized, and already doubts are creeping in that President Obama can be beaten in 2012.

The economy appears to be heading in the right direction, albeit slowly. On the all-important unemployment rate, both public and private forecasts point to joblessness just above 8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 – still high, but lower than today. Economic growth should be in the 3 percent to 4 percent range.

“[T]he economic indicators are looking far better for Obama today than they did six months ago, and they seem headed toward a place where presidents tend to get reelected,” writes political analyst Charlie Cook in National Journal.

Add to the mix Mr. Obama’s formidable skill as a campaigner and his unparalleled political organization. During his first two years as president, Obama faltered on communication, failing to reassure the public on the economy and health-care reform, and that cost the Democrats dearly in the 2010 midterms. But Obama has retooled his team and pivoted toward the center, repositioning himself with remarkable speed in the face of the newly empowered congressional Republicans.

After announcing last week that he would sit out the 2012 presidential election, Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota told the Associated Press that Obama was a “very shrewd politician” and suggested he would be hard to beat. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a top possible contender in a large field of GOP possibles, called Obama “tough to beat” last week in an interview with ABC News. He raised the prospect of Obama starting out the race with $1 billion, a figure especially daunting for Mr. Huckabee, who is a weak fundraiser.

Whomever the Republicans nominate will also have some demographic challenges. The voters of 2012 will look more like the 2008 electorate – more young voters, more minorities – than the 2010 midterm electorate, which skewed older and whiter. But on the plus side for the GOP, redistricting has added six electoral votes to the states that John McCain won for the Republicans in 2008.

Incumbency presents Obama with pluses and minuses. On the plus side, he has shown that he can win a presidential race. History also shows that a president usually wins a second term when his first term represented a change of party. But Obama is no longer a cipher. He has a record, and the 2012 election will be an up-or-down judgment on his tenure so far.

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Among the top tier of potential GOP candidates, “it almost doesn’t matter” whom the Republicans nominate, "because the 2012 presidential election will essentially be a referendum on President Obama," says Ford O’Connell, chairman of the conservative CivicForumPAC. “There are about a half dozen who can win the GOP nomination,” says Mr. O’Connell. He cites Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

O’Connell puts the odds of Obama’s reelection at 60 to 65 percent. But, he adds, Obama can be beaten. No matter how tough an adversary someone may appear to be at a certain stage, no one is unbeatable. Just ask former President George H.W. Bush, who looked invincible in 1991 after the liberation of Kuwait, only to get beaten over the economy in 1992 by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Presidential historian Allan Lichtman pegged Obama as on track for reelection nearly a year ago. According to his system of “13 keys to the presidency,” only four are working against Obama: a loss of Democratic House seats in the 2010 midterms (which Mr. Lichtman had anticipated last March), lower economic growth in Obama’s term compared with the previous two presidential terms, a lack of major success in foreign or military affairs, and lack of incumbent charisma.

On that last point, Lichtman says, Obama “seems to be getting his charisma back,” so even that may not be a problem. An economic downturn would hurt him but not be fatal to his reelection, Lichtman adds. A combination of economic downturn and another 9/11-style attack on US soil would finish off Obama for reelection, “but that’s a lot to have to happen,” says Lichtman, a professor at American University in Washington.

So as things stand now, Obama is on track to win reelection by a decent margin, comparable to his 2008 victory, Lichtman says.

But he doesn’t recommend any of the GOP’s 2012 crowd skipping the race just because Obama looks hard to beat. “You never want to sit it out,” even if you may not succeed, Lichtman says. “Candidates have lost and come back and won. Richard Nixon is the greatest example of that. You get a lot of experience running.”

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