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Race tightens for Obama, Romney ahead of final debate

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The race between President Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney has tightened in the days before their final televised debate, with the Republican closing the gap on Obama's slight but steady lead in a Reuters/Ipsos online poll.

Data from the daily tracking poll released on Saturday showed the Democratic incumbent with a small lead over the former Massachusetts governor, but the margin has narrowed from Friday and from results earlier in the week.

Forty-six percent of likely voters said they would vote for Obama in the November 6 election, while 45 percent said they would back Romney.

On Friday, Obama was ahead by three percentage points at 46 percent compared to 43 percent for Romney.

"Our numbers have shown ... Obama fairly steadily ahead by three points over the last couple of days and today's data does show a tightening in those numbers," Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said.

"It's very much neck and neck. I anticipate actually that we're going to see these numbers neck and neck all the way to Election Day."

Romney got a big boost from his strong performance in the first debate on October 3 with Obama, who was widely judged to have given a passive, lackluster performance.

The president charged back with a sharper appearance in their second debate on October 16, comforting frustrated Democrats. While opinion polls showed most viewers thought Obama won that debate, Clark said he did not, in the end, get a noticeable bounce in the polls as a result.

"I wouldn't say that we saw a second-debate bounce for either candidate," she said, while predicting that the third and final debate on Monday would not affect the race dramatically unless one of the candidates made a significant gaffe.

The final debate focuses on foreign policy. Obama is spending the weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland to prepare, and Romney is doing the same in Florida, a battleground state where the debate will be held.

Though national polls give a sense of the mood of the electorate, the winner of the White House race will be determined by electoral votes from a handful of states such as Ohio and Florida that swing, historically, between voting for Republicans and Democrats in presidential elections.

A RealClearPolitics average of polls on Saturday showed Obama ahead in Ohio by 2.5 percentage points and Romney ahead in Florida by 2.1 percentage points.

The precision of Reuters/Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.0 percentage points for likely voters.

(Editing By Alistair Bell and Eric Beech)

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