President Barack Obama has expanded his lead over Mitt Romney in Nevada, according to a new poll that shows the incumbent edging his GOP challenger 50 percent to 46 percent and headed toward victory Tuesday unless Romney halts the Democrat's momentum in the state that could settle the White House race.
After taking a couple of days off the campaign trail to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Obama is scheduled to rally supporters in Las Vegas this afternoon.
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., plans back-to-back appearances in Reno and Las Vegas today.
Romney is expected to return to Nevada to campaign before Election Day, working to boost GOP voter turnout to counter a Democratic ballot advantage during the two-week early voting period that ends Friday.
Obama was leading Romney among those who said they already voted by 6 points, 52-46, according to the SurveyUSA poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow.
But Romney was edging Obama, 47-46, among voters who said they planned to cast ballots on Election Day. The GOP challenger would have to do far better to overcome the president's growing edge as Democrats outpace Republicans in early and absentee voting by 35,000 ballots statewide.
Romney also must expand his lead in Northern Nevada's Washoe County and among independents to upset Obama, who is leading 53-42 in populous Clark County, according to the survey.
Romney had a narrow lead in Washoe, 48-46, and was beating Obama 49-42 among nonpartisans, according to the poll. Two weeks ago, Romney led Obama 52-34 among independents in a SurveyUSA poll, a double-digit margin he needs to win. Romney's 2-point advantage didn't change in Washoe, where Obama in 2008 became the first Democratic presidential contender to win since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Pollster Jay Leve said Romney made small gains in Nevada after the first presidential debate, coming within 1 point of the president. But Obama recovered ground just as an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort began in October. A SurveyUSA poll two weeks ago had Obama 3 points ahead, 48-45.
"What we're seeing is a slight tailwind for Obama," Leve said. "If Romney was going to make a move in Nevada, you would have expected to see it right now and the race would be tightening."
Asked whether it was "game over" for Romney in Nevada, Leve said no: The race is too close.
"Romney has to overcome some fundamental strengths for Obama in Nevada," Leve said.
Leve said Obama began with a head start after winning Nevada by 12 percentage points four years ago, smashing his GOP opponent, U.S. Sen. John McCain, and building a political organization that never turned out the lights.
Democrats also registered far more voters than Republicans for a 90,000-voter advantage this year.
In the past four years, however, the president has lost support as the recession he inherited hit Nevada harder than other states. The unemployment rate in Nevada still leads the nation at 11.8 percent.
Recognizing the danger of a Nevada loss, Obama has lavished attention on the state, visiting 10 times this year, including today's visit. During official trips, the president announced programs to help homeowners hit by the deep foreclosure crisis and to help students get low-interest loans and Pell Grants to pay for college.
Romney, too, has focused on the Silver State as a key test of whether voters will agree that Obama has failed the economic test and that he himself is more qualified to lead a robust recovery because of his business experience as the former head of Bain Capital. Romney also is a former Massachusetts governor.
Obama's rally today will be held outdoors at the Cheyenne Sports Complex in North Las Vegas. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. for the event, which will feature actress Eva Longoria.
Ryan will hold a rally at 3 p.m. at the Reno Convention Center and then visit volunteers at a Team Nevada campaign office in Summerlin around 6 p.m.
Nevada is one of a dozen swing states that will determine who wins, delivering six Electoral College votes that could put Obama or Romney over the top for the 270 necessary to win.
"While there are other states with more electoral votes, you're having Obama spend precious time in your state because those six electoral votes are so important in this race," Leve said.
For the candidate who loses Ohio - the big election prize - a Nevada victory becomes vital. Romney in particular must shift states won by Obama in 2008 to the GOP presidential column.
There is little room for growth. The latest poll shows only 2 percent of voters remain undecided. One percent said they would choose "none of these candidates." Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was pulling 1 percent of the vote, as was Virgil Goode, the Independent American Party contender.
"Most people have made their decisions," said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who expects Obama to win. "Romney is not getting the movement he needs among the nonpartisans. He would need a huge Republican turnout to cut into the Democrat's early voting lead."
Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, said he is confident the president will score a repeat victory here and nationally, but he said Obama is returning to the Silver State to ensure re-election.
"We're taking nothing for granted," Messina said. "We continue to feel very confident about our chances in Nevada."
The Romney campaign and Republicans argued, however, that Democrats are not building up enough of a "firewall" during early voting in Clark County to overcome Romney's GOP advantage in the rest of the state and on Election Day. In 2008, Democrats had an early voting edge of 84,000 ballots.
"The fact Governor Romney is leading among independent voters shows that Nevadans know they can't afford four more years," said Darren Littell, spokesman for Team Nevada. "Nevadans want a real recovery, and Governor Romney is the only candidate in this race who will deliver a real recovery."
The SurveyUSA poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 23 through Monday, using a mix of cellphones and landlines and English or Spanish, depending on respondents' choice. The poll surveyed 1,212 likely voters and those who had already voted. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
The gender mix was 50-50. Hispanics accounted for 21 percent of those questioned, although Latinos accounted for about 15 percent of the electorate in the past two elections in Nevada.
Democrats accounted for 43 percent of those surveyed, Republicans 33 percent and independents 23 percent. That roughly matches the party breakdown in Nevada, although there are more Republicans and fewer nonpartisans.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.