Head to head, it’s Obama 50, Romney 45. If Paul splits, it’s Perot redux.

Second look at not driving Ron Paul from the party?

Among voters ages 18-44, the margin on the right is even narrower: Obama 47, Romney 27, Paul 21. The key demographic above is, of course, independents, who split almost equally between the three. (Romney cleans up among right-leaning indies but Paul tops him among neutrals and left-leaners.) Choose your own theory to explain that. Proof that Paul is connecting with unaffiliated voters, either because of his spending policies, his dove-ishness, or simply as a none of the above? Proof that Romney’s actually a weak frontrunner, unable to crack even 35 percent among independents in a three-way race despite his own sterling track record in business and Obama’s dismal economic record? Or proof that The One has turned so toxic to indies that he can’t claim a plurality among three candidates despite the fact that he’s an incumbent and wins comfortably overall? Per the last theory, go read the Times’s story about its new poll finding “significant obstacles among independent voters” to a second term for Hopenchange:

As Mr. Obama moves toward a full-throated campaign, delivering a State of the Union address on Tuesday and inching closer to directly confronting his Republican challenger, a majority of independent voters have soured on his presidency, disapprove of how he has dealt with the economy and do not have a clear idea of what he hopes to accomplish if re-elected.

The swing voters who will play a pivotal role in determining his political fate are up for grabs, the poll found, with just 31 percent expressing a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama. Two-thirds of independent voters say he has not made real progress fixing the economy.

As for Romney, he ties Obama at 45 head to head while Gingrich trails by 11. But the same poll finds that nearly seven in 10 Republicans want more presidential candidates and the number who say they’re more enthusiastic about this election than previous ones has actually dropped seven points since September. Weak frontrunner. And then there’s this, which is potentially O’s ace in the hole:

In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 60 percent say Mr. Obama is attempting to work with Congressional Republicans to try to accomplish something; 27 percent say Republicans in Congress are making the same effort to work things out with the president…

Majorities of Democrats and independents say Mr. Obama is trying to work with the Republicans and only a third of Republicans agree. But nearly half of the Republicans surveyed do agree with Democrats and independents on one thing: Congressional Republicans are not working with the president to make progress on the legislative agenda.

At least 80 percent want the parties to compromise, so the perception that the GOP refuses to work with Obama is not something that’s helping them. If O really is committed to running against Congress, there’s the evidence that it might work — and since Romney’s not a dynamic personality, it might be easier for Axelrod et al. to make Congress the face of the GOP than it would with a more charismatic nominee. 2012: “Anybody But Obama” versus “The Do-Nothing Congress”?