Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign rally this week in Toledo, Ohio.… (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty…)
As Mitt Romney prepares for his pivotal first debate against President Obama, his campaign is struggling to regain its footing. By recalibrating his message and increasing his interactions with reporters, Romney is trying to reignite his presidential bid at a critical time, with just over a month until election day and early voting underway in many key swing states.
He is still struggling to connect with voters, a challenge that has confronted him since the primaries. And he has often spent more time fundraising than campaigning in battleground states, where recent polling shows Obama gaining ground.
A campaign that once gloated about expanding the electoral map for Republicans is now fiercely fighting to hang on to states that were once considered favorable territory for the GOP nominee, such as North Carolina.
Romney continues to be dogged by the release of a secretly taped video that shows him denigrating nearly half the population, forcing him to play up his empathy. And despite repeated pledges by his campaign to offer specifics, even some supporters say he is too vague about his plans. All this is why political experts say Wednesday's debate is so crucial.
"Mitt Romney has been defined by the Obama campaign over the course of the summer, and over the last couple weeks, by a series of mistakes. In the debates there's an opportunity to reset that because there's a massive audience share and Mitt Romney needs to go in there and needs to win," said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who worked for Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign.
Despite unhappiness with Obama among some voters, Romney has struggled to convince the nation that he would be a better president. His advisors have tried in recent weeks to blend his economic message with a sharper critique of the president's foreign policy.
Russ Schriefer, a top Romney strategist, said the candidate was striving to strike a balance between responding to current events and driving a broader message about what four more years of an Obama presidency would mean for taxes, healthcare and the federal debt, an issue that has particular resonance for independents.
"What we'll be doing over the next five weeks is contrasting [Romney's and Obama's] views very specifically," he said.
This past week, Romney was supposed to highlight his energy and trade plans. But at rallies, he largely glossed over them, except at one event in a Cleveland suburb where he spoke extensively about cracking down on China over unfair trade practices.
He spent Thursday and Friday discussing looming military cuts. That was a logical argument to make in Virginia, which has a large population of veterans as well as defense industry workers.
Melissa Bosse, a retired member of the Navy, said she appreciated the details Romney articulated during a rally but said he needed to offer more because people were uncertain what he stood for.
"People are concerned about where he wants to take the country," said the 32-year-old from Alexandria. "The more specifics, the better."
Simultaneously, Romney has been forced to confront the president's personal popularity, which persists even among voters who are not pleased with Obama's handling of the economy. In recent days, he has insisted that Obama cares for the nation as much as Romney does, but simply does not know how to fix it. That is a contrast with the candidate's statements over the summer, when he portrayed Obama as a lying Chicago politician who was putting political success ahead of the nation's needs.
"Look, I know the president cares about America and the people of this country," he told thousands of supporters at a rally in Toledo on Wednesday, some of whom groaned at the positive words about Obama. "He just doesn't know how to help them. I do. I'll get this country going again."
The multimillionaire is pushing back forcefully at notions that he is uncaring and unable to connect with struggling Americans. But the release of a video in which he seemed to dismiss 47% of voters as dependent on government and therefore unlikely to support him has sharpened that perception among some voters — a development evident in recent polling.
At a rally in Westerville, Ohio, on Wednesday, Romney said his "heart aches" from the struggles of people he's met on the campaign trail.
"There are so many people in our country that are hurting right now. I want to help them. I know what it takes to get an economy going again and creating jobs. I know that a lot of folks that have jobs that wonder how they can make ends meet till the end of the month, how they can put food on the table for their family," he said.
In an interview, Romney touted the healthcare plan he crafted as governor of Massachusetts, his biggest liability during the GOP primary and something he rarely talks about on the campaign trail.
"Don't forget — I got everybody in my state insured," Romney told NBC News. "One hundred percent of the kids in our state had health insurance. I don't think there's anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record."
Romney typically has limited interactions with the press, but that interview was among a series that he has done in recent days. In the primaries and during his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid, when Romney's campaign faltered, he often talked more with reporters. Last week, he granted multiple interviews to five major television networks three days in a row, and took questions from reporters on his plane several times.
But his biggest audience will be on Wednesday, when he will take on the president in front of tens of millions of Americans.