DES MOINES, Iowa -- Republican Mitt Romney is struggling in swing-state Iowa at a perilous point: just as voters here start casting early ballots in the presidential race.
President Barack Obama has a clear lead in Iowa opinion polls, helped by the fact that the state's economy is far more robust than other battleground states. The president's polling edge is so wide it has prompted grumbling among Iowa Republicans who fault Romney for failing to take advantage of Obama's standing, which had been weakened in the four years since Iowa launched his bid for the White House in 2008.
"There still is time to win, but we are in the fourth quarter," said Nick Ryan, a veteran Iowa Republican strategist who was a top adviser to Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's caucus campaign.
Iowa is hardly the largest prize in the race for 270 Electoral College votes. But the six it offers could be pivotal if the race is close.
Iowans on Thursday can begin voting in person at early voting sites and returning absentee ballots they've requested by mail or in person. Iowa Republicans are mindful that the perception of Romney in deep trouble could sway voters already casting ballots - or dissuade volunteers from encouraging backers to turn out at the polls.
The state knows Romney and Obama well; both competed here in 2008. And Romney came close to winning its caucuses in January.
"A lot of people I know are excited about Romney," said Susan Geddes, a Republican from Indianola, just south of Des Moines. "And a lot of people I talk to are like me, and just want it over with."
Since locking up the GOP nomination in the spring, Romney has visited the state six times and has poured $8 million into television advertising here. GOP-leaning groups have tried to help, spending $20 million in TV ads criticizing Obama. But Romney hasn't been to the state since Sept. 7, when he made a trip to the Republican-heavy northwest. And he has paid scant attention to the blue-collar voters along Iowa's eastern edge, where unemployment is running higher than in the state overall and where he needs a big turnout to overtake Obama.
The Republican's team insists that he hasn't given up on the state and that he and his running mate, Paul Ryan, plan to spend more time in Iowa in the final weeks of the campaign.
"You're going to see the governor and Paul Ryan talking a lot directly to voters, having more opportunities to do that," campaign spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said.