By Sam Youngman
RENO, Nevada (Reuters) - When Mitt Romney landed in Las Vegas on Tuesday, President Barack Obama's advance team had beaten him there.
Obama was not on the ground yet, but the massive military cargo plane that transports the Democratic president's limo and support vehicles was there as Romney's motorcade rolled past to an event in Henderson County.
Locked in a tight race nationally, the two men are also fighting hard over Nevada and its six electoral college votes. Obama appears to have the lead in the state, prompting Romney to make his second visit here this week in an attempt to chip away at the president's support.
"Nevada is a great example of how we are playing offense on the map and Obama is playing defense," said senior Romney adviser Kevin Madden. "They won here in 2008, but we're now in a position to take it from them on Election Day and put it in the Romney win column."
That might be a tall order, but Romney is giving it a try as he rides a wave of enthusiasm among Republicans following strong showings in the three presidential debates.
Despite the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 11.8 percent and a housing market still reeling from foreclosures, the Democrats are strong in the state. They have worked hard since Obama won Nevada in 2008 and enjoy an advantage in voter registration.
In Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, Obama's ground forces have amassed what Jon Ralston, one of the state's top political analysts, calls a near unstoppable "firewall," already banking as much as a 25,000-vote lead in Clark County through early voting.
Ralston, author of the website RalstonFlash.com, said that perhaps Republicans are seeing internal polling that indicates Romney can overtake Obama's Clark County advantage with big showings in the rest of the state.
"They're seeing something that nobody else is except them," he said. "The Democrats are building a firewall, so (Romney campaigners) are anticipating something that has not happened in the past, either a huge Republican surge or independents going big for Romney."
Romney and his SuperPAC allies have spent heavily on TV ads in the state in recent days.
STEADY LEAD FOR OBAMA
"They think they've got a shot, or enough of a shot to make Obama spend time and money" in Nevada, Republican strategist Rich Galen said.
In the last few days, Rasmussen's daily tracking has shown Obama holding steady with a 2-point lead. The political website RealClearPolitics.com has Nevada rated as a toss-up, with Obama up 2.6 percentage points in an average of polls. Meanwhile, Public Policy Polling's latest survey found Obama leading Romney by four points.
In a good sign for Obama, Public Policy Polling also said on Wednesday that 84 percent of African Americans and 79 percent of Hispanics were "very excited" about voting, compared to 72 percent of whites.
Whatever strategies the Romney campaign might have in mind - like forcing Obama to spend time and money in the state - campaign officials dismissed any notion that Nevada is a stretch for Romney.
Officials hinted that their own polling shows Romney leading, with one top campaign strategist saying, "I think we'll win Nevada."
"Very, very close, and we are a little ahead and moving," the strategist said.
Speaking in Reno on Wednesday, Romney said the "Obama campaign is slipping and shrinking."
"Our campaign is a growing movement across this country, where people recognize we're going to build a brighter future for the American family," Romney said. "We're coming together with more power and more energy."
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Philip Barbara)