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GOP Infighting Helps Obama But Gas Prices, Keystone Decision Could Hurt Reelection: Chalian

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It's the economy, stupid.

The catchphrase coined by James Carville during Bill Clinton's successful campaign against incumbent George Bush in 1992 has been repeated innumerable times since, and holds just as much significance today as it did 20 years ago.

The U.S. economy has been on an uptick over the last few months and Americans are feeling more optimistic as the economic picture improves.

Good economic news bodes well for President Barack Obama as the November election approves. According to a new Politico/George Washington University Battleground poll, Obama's approval rating has increased to 53 percent from 44 percent in just four months. A third of Americans believe the country is on the right track — double the number who believed it last November.

Moreover, Obama beats GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney by 10 points in the poll's head-to-head match up. But a USA Today/Gallup survey paints a slightly different picture, with Rick Santorum edging Obama by 49 percent to 46 percent.

GOP Infighting Good for Obama

As the remaining four GOP presidential contenders compete for votes in Tuesday's Republican primaries, the focus has shifted from the economy to social issues. Yahoo!'s Washington Bureau Chief David Chalian tells Aaron Task in the above video that the economy could play a small role in the general election if the unemployment rate continues to drop and economic reports continue to surprise to the upside. Furthermore, a protracted GOP nomination process could push voters to Obama.

"This Republican nomination process is not wearing well on the public overall," Chalian says. "It's exposing some real weaknesses with Republican policy positions and messaging and that is something the Obama team is exploiting day in and day out." (See: Romney, Santorum Face Off in Michiga Primary)

The recent spike in gasoline prices has caused Republicans to pounce on the White House and the administration's energy policies, including Obama's decision to reject the controversial Keystone XL pipeline in January.

The national average for gasoline is $3.716 according to AAA, an increase of 30 cents in one month and 35 cents from a year ago. Keystone proponents said it would have employed thousands of Americans in the short term and increased the nation's energy supply. TransCanada, the company hoping to build the pipeline, reapplied for a federal permit on Monday. The White House said it welcomed TransCanada's plans and will "take every step possible to expedite the necessary federal permits."

Although the $2.3 billion pipeline is expected to bring 700,000 barrels of oil per day into the country, it could take years for consumers to realize its monetary impact on gasoline prices, which many experts say would be negligible. (See: Keystone Pipeline Project 'Not Dead' Says Credit Suisse Analyst)

Are higher prices at the pump the biggest risk to Obama's reelection?

Explosively high gasoline prices is "not welcome news politically to the White House" Chalian says but "there's not much a politician can do" about it. (See: Gas Prices Are Soaring Toward $5 A Gallon--What Should Be Done?)

In 2008, the average price for a gallon of gasoline was $4.11, and Obama and Hilary Clinton, both Democratic nominees for the presidency at that time, criticized and blamed President Bush for the higher prices. You can demagogue the issue in politics, Chalian notes, but a rise in gasoline prices is always a threat to an incumbent president.

Who Obama faces in November won't be decided for a few more weeks but White House officials are still preparing for a Romney match-up and "firmly believe that Mitt Romney is going to be the nominee," according to Chalian. However, "this nomination process has really done some damage for Mitt Romney especially among independent voters. This whole process has prevented Romney from telling his own narrative."