Romney is devoting valuable hours preparing for a series of debates in October that have suddenly taken on new significance; twice in the last week he has holed up with advisers and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who plays Obama in the sessions.
"There are only a few major events left that can shift the dynamic of this race," said Charlie Black, an informal Romney adviser. "He is right to spend that time preparing for the debates."
Obama had barely accepted the nomination last week when Romney unleashed a $4 million-plus blizzard of new TV ads in the most competitive states. The Republican expanded his footprint into Democratic-leaning Wisconsin in hopes of blazing more paths to reaching the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. He also started advertising on cable television networks that cater more to female viewers as he looks to narrow Obama's advantage among women.
Expect even more in the coming days as Romney dips into his huge cash stockpile. At the end of August, Romney, the Republican National Committee and state parties were sitting on a combined $169 million. It's expected to be more than Obama and his team, which hasn't yet released their cash figure. Romney has spent less than $79 million on television advertising, compared to Obama's $219 million. Combined with Romney allies' help, the GOP side actually has outspent Obama and his allies so far.
Over the past week, Romney has hit the campaign trail energized and animated. And in Ohio, Romney struck an empathetic tone as he sought to connect with voters struggling with a tough economy.
"These are real families. These are real people," Romney said. "I was with a miner who said, 'Please help me keep my job.'"
Observers have noticed a change in the candidate who struggles to connect with his audiences and is tagged by critics as less than charismatic and even out of touch.
"He's turned into a different person," said Lillian Glass, a Los Angeles-based body language expert. "He's become more passionate, more emotional, more dynamic, a communicator."
That burst of enthusiasm dovetailed with a round of national polls that showed Obama opening up a slight lead in what had been a deadlocked race — causing a round of second-guessing among Republican insiders about the state of the campaign.
"Romney can still win but few at bats left," GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, who worked for Romney in 2008, wrote on Twitter. "Still think an Obama 2nd term (equals) disaster. Just haven't heard why Romney would be better. I remain hopeful."
Amid the angst, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse released a post-convention memo that called Obama's uptick "a sugar high," and added: "Don't get too worked up about the latest polling."
Romney aides are cautioning Republican naysayers to be patient, arguing that he is within striking distance in each of the handful of states where the two campaigns are focusing their travel time, campaign staff and advertising dollars. They say if Romney can stay close or make gains, undecided voters will break for the challenger.
The campaign and the candidate's posture these days are reminiscent of how Romney acted and the strategy he employed last winter during the primary season after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich soundly beat him in South Carolina.
Romney responded by sharpening his attacks in next-up Florida, and he benefited as an outside group unleashed millions of dollars of television advertising against Gingrich. Romney also turned in a strong debate performance just before the primary. Romney ended up winning Florida and the nomination.
The next few weeks will determine whether he can do the same against Obama.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy in New York and Ben Feller in Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this report.
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