Less than six months before the U.S. presidential election, new polls show a deadlocked race between President Barack Obama and his expected Republican opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
The intense verbal jousting between the Obama and Romney campaigns has begun early and political analysts predict a long and largely negative campaign between now and November.
Frank Newport is a pollster with one of the most respected monitors of U.S. public opinion, the Gallup Organization.
"You put it all together and my conclusion looking at it is that it is a very close race at this point," said Newport. "In fact, when we asked people who would you vote for if the election were today, voters in America, basically it is tied at about 46 [percent] to 46."
If the predictions hold true, the 2012 race will be in keeping with other recent close presidential elections, including those in 2000 and 2004.
Most analysts say the economy is the critical issue in this year's campaign and they say the key question is whether voters have enough faith in Obama to reward him with another four years in office, or turn instead to Romney.
Romney is close to securing the 1,144 delegates he needs to claim the Republican Party's presidential nomination and has focused his campaign on President Obama's handling of the economy.
"He has spent more and borrowed more. The time has come for a president, a leader, who will lead. I will lead us out of this debt and spending inferno," said Romney.
After a relatively comfortable victory four years ago, the president is warning his Democratic supporters to expect a much closer contest this year. Obama spoke recently at a campaign fundraising event in New York.
"But I'm going to need all of you," said Obama. "This is going to be a tough race. It is going to be a tight race. Nobody should be taking this for granted."
Polls show voters like Obama personally more than Romney, but many surveys give Romney a slight edge in handling the economy.
Thomas Mann, a political expert at the Brookings Institution, says public perceptions of the economy will be a determining factor in November.
"I would say the most important factor is whether the economy is picking up some steam and moving forward or is it falling back again? If it's falling back again Obama's re-election is at serious risk," said Mann.
Like the 2004 matchup between President George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry, both candidates this year will rely on a strong turnout from committed supporters in their parties.
But close elections are usually decided by independent voters, who do not have strong allegiances to either political party and are liable to swing either way on Election Day.
Ken Duberstein served as former President Ronald Reagan's chief of staff in the 1980s.
"Where the votes are going to count are in the middle, in the independent vote," said Duberstein. "If the bases [of both parties] turn out, nobody wins. It is the fight over the independents, the 'indies.' So you have to broaden your constituency and not just play to your existing base."
While the campaign is expected to be tough, Romney has repudiated a proposed attack campaign against the president developed on behalf of wealthy conservative businessman Joe Ricketts.
The New York Times said that the $10 million ad campaign that Ricketts wanted to fund separately from the Romney campaign would have resurrected Obama's ties to his controversial former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. But a spokesman says Ricketts has now rejected the proposed campaign. Republican candidate John McCain opposed a similar campaign when he ran against Obama in 2008.