President Barack Obama would win Nevada if the general election were held now, according to a new poll that shows Republican Mitt Romney the closest GOP competitor nipping at his heels.
The survey has Romney edging Obama among swing independents, but the president leads overall thanks to strong backing from Democrats as Romney fights to win over more Republicans.
The poll, commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow, pitted the president in head-to-head matchups against Republican challengers.
It confirms that Nevada is a key battleground that could decide the 2012 White House race -- and that Romney is the GOP favorite with the strongest chance to contest Obama's re-election.
Obama had 45.7 percent support compared with 39.8 percent for Romney in the survey, a six-point advantage. The remaining 14.5 percent said they didn't like either choice or didn't know whom to pick.
The president crushed U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, 45.4 percent to 35.7 percent, in the poll for a 10-point advantage. And Obama stomped Newt Gingrich by 12 points, 47.3 percent to 35.4 percent.
The rest of the GOP presidential contenders, who have all but ignored Nevada, fell off dramatically when matched against Obama, although his support here remained mostly below 50 percent.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics in Virginia, said that the results bode well for Obama but that the president can't count on winning Nevada given its dire economic conditions. The state has the highest jobless rate in the nation at 13 percent and record home foreclosures.
"The incumbent president is below 50 percent. That's far from secure," said Sabato, who counts Nevada as one of seven battleground states that probably will determine who wins the White House. "Given the economic conditions in Nevada, it's remarkable he's ahead at all."
The other battlegrounds are Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Colorado, Florida and Virginia, he said.
OBAMA HAS DEMOCRATS' SUPPORT
Less than a year before the November election, Obama has support from 78.5 percent of Democrats in Nevada, the poll shows. Romney is backed by 73.3 percent of Republicans as he tries to woo conservatives, who are leaning toward Gingrich, the former House speaker.
Among independents, Romney is the only GOP contender beating Obama, according to the survey, which shows Romney with 34 percent support among nonpartisans compared with 32.3 percent for Obama. About one-fifth of the Nevada electorate isn't aligned with either major political party.
The telephone poll of 600 registered Nevada voters was conducted by the Cannon Survey Center of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The survey, which included land lines and cellphones, was taken Dec. 12 through Tuesday. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Obama is by far the leader in general election matchups with the lower-tier GOP candidates:
■ 50.8 percent to 31.1 percent for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
■ 50.2 percent to 27.1 percent for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.
■ 49.3 percent to 30.9 percent for former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
■ 48.8 percent to 30.1 percent for Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor.
Some of those candidates may drop out before Nevada's Feb. 4 GOP presidential caucus if they don't do well in January, when Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida vote.
Romney is favored to win the GOP caucus in Nevada, where the former Massachusetts governor and company turnaround expert finished first in 2008 ahead of Paul. Both Republicans have campaigned in the Silver State several times and have well-developed staff and volunteer organizations here. Gingrich has a couple of political consultants working in the Silver State but has not opened a Nevada office.
A new survey of registered Republicans in Nevada shows Romney leading the GOP pack here, followed closely by Gingrich, with Paul in third and the other competitors far behind.
Romney has 33.1 percent support, with Gingrich at 29.2 percent and Paul at 12.7 percent, according to the poll, which did not focus on likely GOP caucus-goers. Bachmann has 5 percent followed by Santorum at 3.4 percent, Huntsman at 2.9 percent and Perry at 2.5 percent.
The telephone poll taken by Cannon Survey Center this past week questioned 224 registered Republicans and had a margin of error of plus or minus 6.6 percentage points.
ROMNEY DISMISSES GOP POLL
The Romney campaign dismissed the Republican poll because it didn't question voters likely to attend the party caucuses, a devoted group of people supporting specific candidates.
As for the general election, a top Romney adviser said the campaign thinks the Republican can close the gap with Obama and win Nevada once voters focus on the economy and a two-man race.
"Governor Romney has spent a lot of time in Nevada and he understands Nevada issues," said Ryan Erwin, the adviser. "Nevada has been hit pretty hard by the government's policies. Governor Romney is the candidate who's in the best position to turn around this economy. The closer we get to the election, the more you're going to find people gravitating toward Mitt Romney."
The Obama campaign said the survey shows Nevadans are rejecting GOP ideology.
"These polling results further underscore what is already apparent: Republicans have no plan to restore middle- class security, and their policies would just make things worse," said spokeswoman Ofelia Casillas, who slammed the tea party "agenda of obstruction." "The Republican plan to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, roll back regulations and let Wall Street write their own rules are exactly the same policies that caused the economic crisis and devastated the middle class."
In 2008, Obama won Nevada by 12 points over U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., thanks to a Democratic Party voter registration drive and to Hispanics, a growing political force in the state that overwhelmingly backed him. The final tally was 55.15 percent for Obama and 42.65 percent for McCain.
Nevada Democrats still have a 60,000 voter registration edge over Republicans.
The Obama campaign never turned out the lights on its community organizing machine. It has made more than 495,000 phone calls to Nevadans since Obama announced his re-election bid in April, according to the campaign. And the organization has received more than 46,170 preprinted cards from Nevadans who expressed interest in volunteering by declaring, "I'm in!"
Obama has 3,740 active Nevada volunteers, getting a jump start on the GOP competition.
NEVADA COULD BE ALL-IMPORTANT
Former Gov. Bob List, a GOP national committeeman, said Nevada could still play a decisive role, although the state Republicans gave up their No. 3 spot in the early voting lineup for No. 5.
According to the latest polls, Paul could win the Iowa caucuses, Romney the New Hampshire primary, and Gingrich the South Carolina and Florida primaries. That would make Nevada a must-win state for Romney to hold off Gingrich and Paul.
"If Romney does very poorly in South Carolina and Florida and Gingrich does well, it could put some air under Gingrich's wings in Nevada," said List, who added Romney remains the man to beat in the state. "I think Nevada takes on a very significant role in that circumstance."