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As the presidential race tightens across the country, a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found that it is narrowing here as well, with President Obama holding a 3-point lead and Republican Mitt Romney making gains in the state.
The poll shows Obama with support from 47 percent of likely voters and Romney earning backing from 44 percent -- a lead within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Last month, Obama had an 8-percentage point advantage in the Minnesota Poll. Romney has apparently cut into the Democrat's advantage among women since then and picked up support from Minnesotans who were previously undecided or said they would vote for a third-party candidate.
Independents, on the other hand, are leaning more toward Obama. Barely a third supported him last month, but that number has grown to 43 percent. Romney's support among independents remains virtually unchanged, with 13 percent of that group remaining undecided.
In an indication of how close the race has become, both campaigns have started airing ads in the state targeting Minnesota and western Wisconsin voters.
The poll was conducted among 800 likely Minnesota voters who were contacted on their land lines or cellphones between Oct. 23 and Oct. 25.
Democrat Dave Stenberg of Howard Lake is not fond of any of the presidential choices but says Obama should get another term.
"No one is going to fix something in four years that was ruined in eight," the 54-year-old said.
For Janet McCoy, events over the past month have firmed her support for Romney
"I think this country has gone [down] such a wrong path, and I think we need to change," said the 74-year-old Winona Republican.
Breaking down support
Women, a demographic that both candidates have been chasing in the waning weeks of the election, still favor Obama heavily, with 53 percent of female poll respondents backing the president, compared with 37 percent for Romney. But Romney has narrowed that lead since September's poll and opened up his own gender gap with men, 51 percent of whom favor Romney. Forty percent of men chose Obama.
Obama's greatest base of strength remains Hennepin and Ramsey counties, where the president leads Romney 57 percent to 35 percent. Outside the urban center, those numbers flip. More than half of the respondents in the metro suburbs back Romney. The former Massachusetts governor also has a slight edge over Obama in outstate Minnesota.
Voters younger than 35 still heavily favor Obama, by 53 to 36 percent, although Romney's support among younger voters has grown from 29 percent in September.
Meanwhile Obama has gained support with older voters, whom he has targeted by going after Romney running mate Paul Ryan's plan for Medicare. Obama now holds support from a clear majority of Minnesotans older than 65 while Romney captures just 40 percent.
Voters are split when it comes to their most important issues. By varying degrees, they think Romney would do a better job on job creation, taxes and the federal budget, but give the nod to Obama on foreign policy, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and dealing with issues affecting women.
No one appears terribly happy with the way the candidates handled the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. Nearly 60 percent think Obama did only a fair or poor job of responding; 55 percent thought the same of Romney.
Competition equals attention
A more competitive race in Minnesota could mean the state's 10 electoral votes, which have gone to the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since 1972, will get more attention in the campaign's final days. So far, the contest has centered on a handful of swing states, including Wisconsin, Iowa and vote-rich Ohio and Florida, while treating Minnesota as a safe state for Obama.
Obama has long had staffers on the ground in Minnesota working to solidify his support. Romney has no Minnesota-based staff but conservative advocacy groups opposing Obama -- including the American Future Fund and Americans for Prosperity -- have spent millions on the state's airwaves to argue against the president.
While the changes in Minnesotans' presidential preferences have been small over the past month, the poll results show Romney gained some ground from the three presidential debates. Of the 11 percent of poll respondents who said the debates swayed them, the vast majority went to Romney.
As Election Day draws near, Virginia Robertson, 80, said that she favors Obama and that Romney has done little to earn her vote.
"I don't think he has the experience. I don't think he has the compassion and the heart that Obama does," the Fergus Falls resident said. Even though she says the economy has not rebounded as she wishes it would, she wants Obama to remain in office. "I think we just need more time," Robertson said.
Republican Kermit Hauge disagrees.
"Barack Obama has been an absolute disaster as president," said Hauge, 54. He cited the unemployment rate, rising use of food stamps and Obama's positions on taxes and health care among his reasons for supporting Romney. The clerical worker from New Hope said he didn't start out a Romney fan but will now vote for him as a better alternative.
The poll comes as more Minnesotans identify as Republicans, which could add to Romney's support. A month ago, the poll's sample was 41 percent Democrat, 28 percent Republican and 31 percent independent or other. In this survey, 38 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrat, 33 percent Republican and 29 percent independent or other. Minnesota does not have voter registration by party, and party self-identification fluctuates as events sway voters' opinions.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb