Mitt Romney is heading into his nominating convention with his advisers convinced he needs a more combative footing against President Obama in order to appeal to white, working-class voters and to persuade them that he is the best answer to their economic frustrations.
Having survived a summer of attacks but still trailing the president narrowly in most national polls, Mr. Romney’s campaign remains focused intently on the economy as the issue that can defeat Mr. Obama. But in a marked change, Mr. Romney has added a harder edge to a message that for most of this year was focused on his business and job-creation credentials, injecting volatile cultural themes into the race. (Read More: Obama Calls Romney's Ideas 'Extreme')
Some elements of that revised strategy will be evident at the Republican convention, which was set to open here on Monday but will be delayed until Tuesday because of safety concerns from Tropical Storm Isaac. (Read More:Isaac Delays GOP Convention Business)
The Romney campaign was hastily rearranging the schedule, but officials said the convention would still amplify the conservative arguments against the president with speakers like Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
“We will absolutely be able to get our message out,” said Russ Schriefer, a senior campaign adviser. “We still have an opportunity to tell the story of the last four years of how President Obama has failed the country.”
The strategic shift in the campaign message that has been unfolding in recent weeks reflects a conclusion among Mr. Romney’s advisers that disappointment with Mr. Obama’s economic stewardship is not sufficient to propel Mr. Romney to victory on its own.
Republican strategists said that many middle-class voters had proved reluctant to give up entirely on Mr. Obama, and that they still needed to be convinced that Mr. Romney would look out for their interests.
Steven J. Law, the president of the conservative group American Crossroads, said some swing voters in focus groups had helped explain why support for Mr. Obama had not collapsed despite his poor marks on the economy.
“They’re somewhat seduced by the thought, ‘If the guy had more time, maybe he’d be able to turn it around,’ ” said Mr. Law, whose group is spending tens of millions of dollars to change that.
Republicans are nervously monitoring the pivotal battleground of Ohio, where Mr. Romney has had trouble making headway against Mr. Obama. Mr. Romney visited the state on Saturday and previewed the themes of his convention by offering faint praise of his rival, saying: “He says marvelous things. He just hasn’t done them.”
Mr. Obama, unwilling to cede the stage fully to his opponents this week, leveled a counterattack in an interview released Saturday by The Associated Press, painting Mr. Romney as beholden to “extreme” House Republican policies harmful to the middle class.
“He has signed up for positions, extreme positions, that are very consistent with positions that a number of House Republicans have taken,” Mr. Obama said. “Governor Romney’s policies would make things worse for middle-class families and offer no prospect for long-term opportunity for those striving to get into the middle class.”
The battleground map has remained remarkably stable in recent months, which leaves Mr. Obama with more paths to winning 270 electoral votes and places a burden on Mr. Romney to break through in states where he so far has not. But Republicans suddenly see encouraging signs in Wisconsin after the selection of Representative Paul D. Ryan as his running mate. Mr. Romney’s chances hinge to a large degree on running up his advantage among white voters in swing states who show deep strains of opposition to Mr. Obama but do not yet trust Mr. Romney to look out for their interests, Republican strategists say.
Many of those voters are economically disaffected, and the Romney campaign has been trying to reach them with appeals built around an assertion that Mr. Obama is making it easier for welfare recipients to avoid work. The Romney campaign is airing an advertisement falsely charging that Mr. Obama has “quietly announced” plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for welfare beneficiaries, a message Mr. Romney’s aides said resonates with working-class voters who see government as doing nothing for them.
The moves reflect a campaign infused with a sharper edge and overtones of class and race. On Friday, Mr. Romney said at a rally that no one had ever had to ask him about his birth certificate, and Mr. Ryan invoked his Catholicism and love of hunting. Democrats angrily said Mr. Romney’s remark associated him with the fringe “birther” camp seeking falsely to portray Mr. Obama as not American.
The convention will focus on a dual fire-Obama-hire-Romney message that will be presented in an abbreviated fashion from Tuesday through Thursday. Party leaders said Saturday evening that the themes of the convention would be preserved, despite the disruption from Tropical Storm Isaac. Through videos, speeches and carefully staged programming, the convention will amplify what will constantly be described as Mr. Obama’s failures, with a focus on accusations that he has undercut middle-class workers and small-business owners.
But with Ann Romney, Mr. Romney’s wife, taking the stage on Tuesday night, the Republican gathering will be as much about presenting Mr. Romney as a warm-blooded family man who understands the tribulations of everyday people. The campaign, after spending months arguing that the family’s Mormon faith was off limits, invited speakers from Mr. Romney’s church to testify how he had helped them when they were in need.
Those concurrent themes reflect a realization by strategists inside the Romney campaign and its allies at outside groups in recent weeks: Republicans need to do more than critique Mr. Obama’s economic record for Mr. Romney to win. With the race entering its final, decisive phase, strategists on both sides agree that Mr. Obama maintains a razor-thin edge.
That, several Republican officials said in interviews, is the result of a stubborn affinity for Mr. Obama among key swing voters who otherwise say they are disappointed in his job performance — a dynamic the Romney campaign and its allies are seeking to change.
Mr. Law said his group, Crossroads, had reserved roughly $35 million in advertising for the rest of the campaign and planned to spend more on efforts speaking to their other perception, that Mr. Obama had not been able to deliver.
“These folks know they are not happy with what Obama has done, but they are struggling between, ‘I voted for him, I liked him, but he’s not getting the job done,’ ” said Carl Forti, political director for American Crossroads. “That’s where Mitt needs to take advantage.”
But, strategists acknowledge, Mr. Romney still has work to do before those critical swing voters will view him as that alternative, particularly with polls showing that voters see him as less attuned to their needs and values than Mr. Obama is. While he hopes to improve his standing among women, strategists say Mr. Romney’s chances hinge to a large degree on running up his edge among white voters who do not yet trust Mr. Romney.
“Right now the perceptions of him are allowing Barack Obama to stay in this race and keep a slight lead in spite of all the environmental factors that lead you to think he should be gone,” said Matthew Dowd, a pollster for George W. Bush’s campaigns. “If he can change perceptions about himself, then the environment takes hold, and if the environment takes hold, they win.”
Mr. Romney’s team is hoping to change perceptions starting with the Republican convention and, more important, with full access to the $186 million he and the Republican National Committee have on hand and can use as soon as Mr. Romney accepts the party’s nomination. It will give him his first real financial advantage over Mr. Obama this year.
Here and in Boston, Mr. Romney’s team is poised to sift through post-convention polling before pressing its new advantage with final advertising bets in key states.
“For undecided voters, Obama’s job performance weighs more heavily than Mitt’s current image,” said Neil Newhouse, the pollster for Mr. Romney. “They can measure what Obama has done, and his job performance numbers among those voters are extraordinarily weak.”
Central to the weeks ahead, strategists from both parties said, will be the perceptions of voters in battleground states like Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Both sides agree that Mr. Romney’s choice of Mr. Ryan has given Mr. Romney a new opportunity in Wisconsin. But, even Republicans say, the bigger electoral prize of Ohio, as of now seems to be tilting in Mr. Obama’s direction.
With Crossroads and like-minded groups providing critical backup, Mr. Romney’s campaign is freer to concentrate on building its candidate up and trying to repair the damage done to his image over the summer.