WASHINGTON - Americans are growing increasingly optimistic about the future of the U.S. economy, and likely voters trust Republican Mitt Romney slightly more than President Obama to do a better job of managing it, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows.

On the cusp of an election offering stark choices on how best to handle the economy, 60 percent of Americans still describe the current economic situation as poor, but almost as many think things will get better in the coming year. More voters expect the number of unemployed to go down, too. Forty-two percent anticipate improvement in the jobs picture, up 10 percentage points from a month ago.

For all of the shifting dynamics in economic expectations and voters' growing comfort with Romney, though, the presidential race is still a virtual dead heat, with Romney favored by 47 percent of likely voters and Obama by 45 percent, a result within the poll's margin of sampling error.

What matters most in the election endgame is Romney's standing in the handful of states whose electoral votes are still up for grabs. And polls in a number of those battleground states still appear to favor Obama.

After a commanding first debate performance and a generally good month, Romney has gained ground with Americans on a number of important fronts, including his overall favorability rating and voters' impressions of his ability to understand their problems. He has also sharply narrowed the gender gap, with women now split evenly between the two candidates, and Romney holding a slight edge among men.

At the same time, expectations that Obama will be re-elected have slipped: Half of voters now expect the president to win a second term, down from 55 percent a month earlier.

Seventeen percent of likely voters in the survey reported they've already cast ballots, a sharp reminder to the candidates that they have little time left to sway voters.

Romney's pitch to women has been focused squarely on the economy, making the case that what women want most is to ensure their families and their country are on a solid financial footing. The poll shows that message appears to be taking root.

A month ago, women favored Obama over Romney on the economy 56 percent to 40 percent. Now, the split has shifted to 49 percent for Romney and 45 percent for Obama.

Similarly, Obama's lead among women as the candidate who better understands the people's problems has narrowed considerably, from a 58-36 Obama advantage last month to a 50-43 Obama edge now.