LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Republican front-runner Mitt Romney surged on Friday toward an apparent easy win in Nevada, with a new poll showing him beating rival Newt Gingrich by a 2-to-1 margin on the eve of the state’s U.S. presidential nominating contest.
Romney is seeking his second consecutive victory on Saturday in the state-by-state Republican race after seizing momentum earlier in the week by crushing Gingrich in Florida.
A new Public Policy Polling survey showed Romney with support from 50 percent of likely voters in Nevada’s caucuses. Gingrich was at 25 percent, U.S. Representative Ron Paul at 15 percent and former Senator Rick Santorum at 8 percent in the poll of 937 likely Republican caucus voters on Wednesday and Thursday. The margin of error was 3.2 percentage points.
Its results were similar to a Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper poll on Thursday that gave the former Massachusetts governor a 20-point lead in Nevada.
“Mitt Romney is headed for a big win in Nevada on Saturday,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “He’s winning with virtually every demographic group we track.”
Romney, in economically hard-hit Nevada for three campaign events on Friday, welcomed the latest jobs report showing U.S. unemployment dipping to 8.3 percent, but said President Barack Obama’s policies had prevented a broader recovery.
“We can do better,” said Romney, who has touted his business experience as head of a private equity group as a cure for the ailing economy. “Nearly 24 million Americans remain unemployed, underemployed, or have just stopped looking for work.”
Nevada has the highest state unemployment rate, 12.6 percent in December, and the highest foreclosure rate, putting the economy in the spotlight before Saturday’s contest as it will be in the November general election.
Gingrich called the job gains “anemic” and promised to push for revisions to the tax code and the repeal of federal regulations that he said suffocated job growth.
“Anemic growth is not growth,” Gingrich said. “I am proposing aggressive changes that will instantly make the United States a magnet for new businesses and allow entrepreneurs to create new products, services and jobs.”
The former U.S. House speaker again criticized Romney for his comment earlier this week that he did not care about the poor because they had a social safety net.
“It isn’t good enough for the Republican Party to nominate Obama light,” he said at a campaign rally at a country and western bar in Las Vegas. “If you’re a genuine conservative, first of all you don’t say you don’t care about the poor.”
Romney backtracked on the comments about the poor after he made them in a CNN interview on Wednesday. He told a reporter on Thursday he had merely botched a line he often used in campaign speeches.
“It was a misstatement, I misspoke,” Romney said on Nevada’s “Face to Face with Jon Ralston” show.
The Nevada caucus on Saturday is the first of five Republican presidential contests over the next week that could give Romney a chance to take command of the race to pick a challenger to Obama in the November 6 election.
Republicans in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri will make their choice of a potential nominee on Tuesday, and Maine will announce the results of its weeklong state caucuses next Saturday.
Romney has won two of the first four contests, taking primaries in New Hampshire and Florida by healthy margins. Gingrich won South Carolina’s primary, and Santorum narrowly won Iowa’s caucuses over Romney.
But Romney clearly has momentum after his Florida win. He picked up the endorsement of the Reno Gazette-Journal on Friday, the day after winning the backing of billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump.
Romney will cap his Nevada campaign with a rally in suburban Las Vegas on Friday night, while Gingrich will meet with faith leaders in Las Vegas. Paul also has several campaign stops in Nevada on Friday and Santorum is in Missouri.
Editing by Deborah Charles and Peter Cooney