Mitt Romney is tied with President Obama in three key battleground states that Obama flipped from red to blue four years ago, according to new NBC News/Marist polls released early Thursday.
The states -- Colorado, Iowa and Nevada -- are relatively small, but each is an important and symbolic bellwether. In each state, voters overwhelmingly say the economy will be the most important issue in this year's election, but Obama either trails Romney on this issue or, at best, ties him.
Obama holds only a one-point lead in Colorado, 46 percent to 45 percent, with 8 percent undecided. That is well within the poll's margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 percentage points. Obama defeated Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the state by nearly 9 points in 2008.
Each candidate holds between 85 percent and 90 percent of members of their own party, while Obama leads among independents, 48 percent to 38 percent. Among those voters who say there is an excellent or good chance they will vote in November, the two candidates are again statistically tied, with Romney edging in front of Obama by a single point.
"This is a state George W. Bush carried in 2000 and 2004 and has trended Republican in party registration since 2008," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"President Obama broke through four years ago and is countering the partisan difference this time by being plus ten among independents," he added.
Colorado voters are most divided along gender and generational lines. Romney leads among male voters, 49 percent to 41 percent, while Obama wins women, 51 percent to 40 percent. By age, the president leads among voters under 45, 52 percent to 38 percent. But Romney wins voters aged 45 years or older, 49 percent to 43 percent.
Just 45 percent of Colorado voters approve of the job Obama is doing as president, while 49 percent disapprove. A majority, 56 percent, say the country is on the wrong track, compared to only 38 percent who say the nation is headed in the right direction.
Both candidates engender mixed personal feelings. The percentage of voters who have a favorable opinion of Obama (47 percent) is equal to the percentage who have an unfavorable opinion. Similarly, Romney is viewed favorably by 43 percent, and unfavorably by the same percentage. The key difference is among independents: Obama is viewed favorably by 50 percent of independents, compared to just 38 percent who view Obama unfavorably.
Nearly three-quarters of voters say the economy is more important than social issues in determining their vote, and, asked which candidate will do a better job handling the economy, voters issue a split decision: 45 percent choose Romney, compared to 42 percent who pick Obama, with 13 percent undecided.
The two candidates run even in the Hawkeye State, tied at 44 percent apiece. Two percent support another candidate, and 10 percent of voters are undecided. Each candidate holds between 80 percent and 85 percent of the vote among their respective party, while Obama leads Romney among independents by just 4 percentage points, within the margin of error.
There is an 18-point gender gap in the state: Romney leads among men by 9 points (49 percent to 40 percent), while Obama's advantage among women is by an identical margin (48 percent to 39 percent).
Voters without college degrees prefer Romney, 47 percent to 41 percent, while those with degrees tilt toward Obama, 50 percent to 39 percent.
"Both Obama and Romney are far from fifty percent in Iowa and have a lot of ground to cover," said Miringoff.
Voters are split on Obama's job performance: 46 percent approve, while 45 percent disapprove. In the previous NBC News/Marist poll in Iowa, conducted in December, prior to the state's January GOP caucuses, Obama's approval rating was a nearly-identical 45 percent. Voters are also split on each candidate's personal characteristics: 48 percent have a favorable opinion of Obama, while 43 percent view Romney favorably.
More than seven-in-ten voters say the economy is more important to their vote, and Romney holds a slight lead on the question of who would better handle that issue, 46 percent to 41 percent.
Obama won Nevada by double-digits in 2008, but today he leads Romney by just 2 points in the Silver State, 48 percent to 46 percent, the poll shows. Six percent of voters prefer another candidate or are undecided.
"President Obama is nowhere near the 12 percentage point victory he had in Nevada four years ago, but at 48 percent, he remains within striking distance to carry the state," said Miringoff.
Obama wins 82 percent of Democrats, while Romney retains 88 percent of the Republican vote. Independents swing for Obama, 50 percent to 39 percent.
Romney leads among male voters, 52 percent to 41 percent, while women favor Obama by a 14-point margin, 54 percent to 40 percent.
Among white voters, Romney leads Obama by 18 points, 56 percent to 38 percent. Obama wins 89 percent of African Americans and 61 percent of Latinos, but among all races, Obama lags his 2008 performance. (According to exit polls, Obama won 43 percent of whites, 94 percent of blacks and 76 percent of Hispanics four years ago.)
There is also a generational divide in the fast-growing state: Voters under age 45 favor Obama by 13 points, but those 45 and older choose Romney by 6 points.
Due in part to the state's growing minority population, the education gap is reversed in Nevada, the poll shows. Obama leads among non-college graduates, 50 percent to 45 percent, but Romney holds an equivalent edge among those voters with college degrees.
As in the other two states, voters are split on Obama's job performance: 46 percent approve, and 47 percent disapprove. Also, voters are equally split on the candidate's favorability, with Obama earning a +2-point favorable-to-unfavorable split, compared to +3 for Romney.
The NBC News/Marist polls were conducted May 22-24, surveying respondents via landline and cellular telephone. Each survey carries a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 percentage points. Pollsters surveyed 1,030 voters in Colorado, 1,106 voters in Iowa and 1,040 Nevada voters.
NBC News/Marist polls released a week ago in Florida, Ohio and Virginia showed Obama slightly ahead of Romney in each state, though the former Massachusetts governor remained within striking distance in each survey.