By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama retains a big lead over possible Republican rivals in the 2012 election despite anxiety about the economy and the country's future, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday.
Obama's approval rating inched up 1 percentage point from May to 50 percent but the number of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track also rose as pricier gasoline, persistently high unemployment and a weak housing market chipped away at public confidence.
Obama leads all potential Republican challengers by double-digit margins, the poll showed. He is ahead of his closest Republican rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, by 13 percentage points -- 51 percent to 38 percent.
"Obama's position has gotten a little stronger over the last couple of months as the public mood has evened out, and as an incumbent he has some big advantages over his rivals," Ipsos pollster Cliff Young said.
"Until Republicans go through a primary season and select a nominee, they are going to be at a disadvantage in the head-to-head matchups in name recognition."
Obama, who got a boost in the polls last month with the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is amassing an election campaign warchest likely to be larger than the record $750 million he raised in 2008.
Sarah Palin and Romney lead the Republicans battling for the right to challenge Obama in the November 2012 election.
Palin, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2008, had the support of 22 percent of the Republicans surveyed. The former governor of Alaska has not said whether she will run for president next year.
Romney, who failed in a 2008 presidential bid, had 20 percent support.
Representative Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican from Texas, and former pizza executive Herman Cain were tied for third with 7 percent each.
REPUBLICAN RACE STILL FORMING
The Republican candidates are just starting to engage in their slow-starting nomination race. Young said Palin and Romney had a clear advantage at this stage over other challengers in name recognition among voters.
Other surveys have shown Romney in a stronger position. A Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this week gave Romney a slight lead over Obama among registered voters.
In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, the other Republican contenders fared even worse than Romney's 13-point gap in a match-up with Obama. Palin trailed Obama by 23 points and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was behind by 19 points.
The survey was taken after weak jobs and housing figures released last week showed the U.S. economy is recovering slower than expected. Unemployment rose slightly to 9.1 percent for the month.
The poll found 60 percent of respondents said the country is on the wrong track, up from 56 percent in May but still below April's high of 69 percent. In the latest survey, 35 percent said the country is going in the right direction.
Obama's approval rating has drifted in a narrow range between 49 percent and 51 percent since January, with the exception of April when the first spike in gasoline prices drove his rating lower.
With Congress battling over a Republican budget plan that includes scaling back the federal Medicare health program for the elderly, the poll found a plurality of Americans, 43 percent, oppose the Medicare cuts and 37 percent support them.
The poll, conducted Friday through Monday, surveyed 1,132 adults nationwide by telephone, including 948 registered voters. The margin of error is 3 percentage points.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)