Rick Santorum emerged as the strongest presidential candidate in Nebraska in a new statewide poll while President Barack Obama was within reach of claiming one of the state's presidential electoral votes for the second time.

The automated telephone survey of 1,028 Nebraska voters showed leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney more unpopular in Nebraska than Obama, although Romney led the president in a head-to-head race by 12 points.

Santorum ranked as the leading choice of 39 percent of Republican voters in the survey, compared to 25 percent for Romney, 16 percent for Newt Gingrich and 10 percent for Ron Paul.

Matched against Obama, Santorum led by 17 points.

Obama was tied with Santorum in metropolitan Omaha's 2nd Congressional District and trailed Romney by a single point. Under Nebraska's system, the winner of each of the three congressional districts claims an electoral vote, as Obama did in the 2nd District in 2008.

The three-day survey by PPP, a Democratic polling company, marked the first comprehensive look at political sentiments in Nebraska since Santorum emerged as the leading challenger to Romney, whose frontrunner status appears to have him on course to win the GOP presidential nomination.

Among Republicans, Santorum had a 64-22 favorability rating compared to 46-39 for Romney, 38-42 for Gingrich and 30-52 for Paul.  

Among all the Nebraskans surveyed, Obama emerged with better approval marks than anyone but Santorum. The president's approval rating based on job performance split at 38-54 compared to a 32-54 favorable rating for Romney, 24-60 for Gingrich and 31-54 for Paul. Even Santorum was barely able to clear the favorability bar at 44-43. 

Gov. Dave Heineman endorsed Romney before the first presidential caucuses in Iowa launched this year's presidential campaign. Nebraska Republican voters will have their opportunity to weigh in at the May 15 primary election.

Obama's 2008 electoral vote victory in the Omaha House district helped spur Republican-directed congressional redistricting during the 2011 legislative session that led to an increased GOP advantage in the district this presidential election year.

The poll found Obama and Santorum in a 47-47 percent tie in the 2nd District and Romney leading the president by a 46-45 count.

In the 1st District, which includes Lincoln, Romney led Obama by 49-41 and Santorum topped the president by a 54-39 count.

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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