WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney enters the final 37 days of the presidential campaign in desperate need of a change — and fast — as he attempts to peel off support from President Obama, whose standing has been growing among swing state voters but remains tenuous.
Heading into perhaps the most crucial week of the general election — one that could solidify Obama’s standing as the front-runner or reshape the race — Romney is looking to the first presidential debate on Wednesday night and an updated jobs report 36 hours later as key events to try to jolt his campaign. This follows a three-week period that has left his supporters dispirited and hoping for a revival.
Romney has struggled to confront the self-inflicted wound from a video from a fund-raiser video in which he disparaged 47 percent of the electorate and played into all of the Democrats’ negative ads branding him as an uncaring tycoon, and the more optimistic view that voters seem to be having about the economy.
But if Obama is quarterbacking a team that is up big, the game is still only in the third quarter and his opponent remains a threat. He knows Romney will make a run, and the person with momentum at the end can make things shift fairly rapidly.
“The problem for Romney is even if he runs a mistake-free, perfect campaign for the final five weeks, he can’t close the gap,” said Steve Lombardo, a Republican consultant who advised Romney in his 2008 campaign but is unaligned this year. “He’s got to do something beyond run a mistake-free campaign. He’s got to change the trajectory.”
“It’s not enough for him to have parity or have an ‘I did pretty well,’ ” Lombardo added. “It has to be dramatic. It really does have to be dramatic. That’s what’s needed when you get this kind of settling of the electorate. This last round of polls suggests [voters] are reaching a conclusion about the governor even before the first debate happens — and it’s not a favorable one.”
Polls have been showing that, even though the unemployment rate has been stuck above 8 percent amid weak to modest job growth, people are more optimistic about the economy. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted earlier this month found that 31 percent of respondents considered the economy to be very or fairly good, almost double the 14 percent who said the same a year ago. Polls also now consistently show that by a slim margin voters no longer trust Romney more than Obama to handle the economy, a deeply troubling trend for a candidate who has tried for a year and a half to make the election a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy.
In June, for example, Romney led Obama by 4 points in New Hampshire on who voters thought could best handle the economy. Now, the opposite is true, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday. The poll also had Romney down 7 points in New Hampshire — a swing state that knows Romney better than perhaps any other — and with 52 percent having an unfavorable view of the former Massachusetts governor.
Based on a series of polls, several political handicappers last week moved Ohio into a state that is now leaning in Obama’s direction. That means there are seven states ranked as toss-ups, as judged by RealClearPolitics. Romney would have to win all of those states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Virginia — in order to win the election.
But right now almost all of the polls have Romney trailing Obama in each of those states, although not by statistically significant margins. Romney could also put several states in play, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, but has been unable to. Meanwhile, Obama’s campaign is evaluating whether to put more resources into Arizona, a state that has been thought of as favorable toward Romney but also has a large Hispanic population that Democrats believe is open to voting for Obama.
Unknown factors pose the biggest challenge for Obama at this point, according to political analysts. A foreign crisis could emerge — or new details about what went wrong in Libya when four Americans, including ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed — that could cast him in an unfavorable light.
A dismal jobs report could resurrect questions about why he has not been able to nurse the economy back to health more quickly. A strong debate performance by Romney could give voters a reason to give the Republican another look.
And while Obama is leading in many polls at the moment, the support remains soft. With an election that could be determined by a sliver of voters in several swing states, a rapid shift could cause Romney’s fortunes to rise just as quickly as they have fallen in recent weeks. Obama’s campaign advisers insist they are not standing pat, and they are trying to focus on turning out voters in states that allow early voting.
“We haven’t seen complacency because our supporters know this has been a hard fought, closely contested race for a year and a half and will remain so through election day,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. “The Romney campaign has been clear that Governor Romney needs to do more than score points in the debates — he needs to change the fundamental dynamics of the race.”
Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, frequently reminds the staff of a saying he has written in a binder: Things are never as good as they seem, and never as bad as they seem. He cites the struggles the campaign had after losing the South Carolina primary handily to Newt Gingrich, only to come back and win Florida 10 days later. Beeson said the Romney campaign would spend the final weeks hammering away, over and over, at the question, “Can we afford four more years of Barack Obama?” He also challenged the notion that Romney is behind as much as the public polls would lead people to believe.
“The polls are fine. We have sustained what would be the worst two-week stretch that a campaign could have and yet we’re here essentially tied,” he said. “You’re going to have bed-wetters who say this, that, and the other. But that’s not our problem, and the gov doesn’t think that way. He has faith in this team.”
It is hard to overstate just how much Romney has struggled in the weeks since the Republican National Convention.
The fund-raiser video that emerged – showing Romney saying that 47 percent of Americans considered themselves “victims” who were dependent on government — was so damaging that Romney last week spent much of his energy trying to emphasize to voters that he empathizes with them. It is something that Romney has tried again and again throughout his campaign — often using his family — but has still struggled to convey to voters that he can show average Americans the kind of compassion he’s clearly demonstrated to members of his family or his church.
Romney’s campaign has started playing a 10-minute biographical video at his campaign rallies. The campaign showed it first during the convention but it was never seen by a large national audience. He released a new 60-second ad last week that showed him speaking directly to the camera, an effort to show more warmth, and in an interview with NBC News he cited his Massachusetts health care law as a sign of his empathy.
In addition to persuading voters he is on their side, numerous political analysts say he also has to do more to sell his ideas to voters. He ran a campaign that was initially laser-focused on the economy, but his critique was more on what President Obama has done wrong than what a President Romney would do differently.
“Politicians are always waving this notebook saying I have a plan. Well, Romney needs a plan,” said Craig Robinson, who runs the Iowa Republican, an influential website in the key swing state. “That is the fundamental problem of the Romney campaign. He has to campaign in a way that answers that question, so people can say, ‘I’m voting for Romney for X, Y, Z.’ And none of that should include the word Obama.”
“It’s time for him to really start fighting for this,” he added. “And fighting to win.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.