9:41am EDT Sept. 12, 2012 WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Americans are becoming more optimistic about the direction of the country, giving a boost to President Barack Obama in the final stretch of the race for the White House, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Wednesday.

The telephone poll, conducted September 7-10, showed 39% of Americans believed the country was moving in the right direction, while a still-high 55% believed it was on the wrong track.

The numbers represented a sizable change from August, when 31% of those surveyed thought the country was going in the right direction and 64% on the wrong track.

It was the highest level for the "right direction" rating since April 2010.

The numbers are the latest positive sign for the Democratic incumbent, who polls show is slightly ahead of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the race to the November 6 election.

"It's good news for Obama, frankly, because the more people who think things are going in the right direction now, the easier it will be for him to get re-elected," said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark.

"As that number begins to creep up, it's all good news for the party in power."

The poll was conducted by telephone with 1,089 adults and is considered an accurate measure within 3.1 percentage points of how the entire U.S. adult population would have responded if surveyed.

Asked whom they would vote for if the election were held today, 48% said they would vote for Obama and 45% said they would support Romney. The three percentage-point difference was in line with Reuters/Ipsos daily online tracking polls.

Recent polls have indicated that Obama left last week's Democratic National Convention with a small "bounce" after months of being a neck-and-neck race with Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.

The improved ratings could stem from the convention buzz and from a sense that Americans are feeling better about the U.S. economic climate, Clark said.

"It's possible that this is the beginning of an improvement of perceptions in how things are going in the economy," Clark said, noting that the poll measured "optimism" and did not take into account metrics such as U.S. unemployment figures or stock market levels.

Government data on Friday showed that U.S. employers added a less-than-expected 96,000 jobs in August, a fact that Romney's campaign has emphasized as a sign that Obama has been a poor steward of the U.S. economy.

The poll indicated that an equal number of Americans viewed Romney and Obama as having good economic credentials, however, with 44% saying Romney was stronger on jobs and the economy and 44% saying the same about the president.

The two candidates also were close in their perceived strength on immigration and taxes, but Obama was favored on the issues of health care, national security, foreign policy and the war in Afghanistan.

Obama has played up missteps by Romney on a recent trip the Republican made to Europe and the Middle East, while highlighting his own role in overseeing the end of the Iraq war and the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The poll showed Obama's overall approval ratings as more or less stagnant. Fifty percent of those surveyed approved of how the president was handling his job, compared with 49% last month. Forty-six percent of respondents disapproved of his job performance in September, compared with 48% in August.

(Editing by David Lindsey and W. Simon)

© 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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