Though the Romney campaign has shrugged off the uptick in polls for Obama as a “sugar high,” Republicans are pushing Romney to refocus his message on the economy and get more specific about his agenda in response. Romney has been diverted from his core message by foreign policy debates this week, facing pushback from prominent conservatives over his criticism of Obama after the violence in Egypt and Libya.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll shows Romney trailing Obama by at least five points in Florida, Virginia and Ohio, all states that Obama won in 2008.
In Florida, which has 29 electoral votes — up from 27 in 2008 — Obama has a five-point lead among likely voters and an eight-point lead among registered voters.
Romney is expected to visit the Sunshine State for high-dollar fundraisers and campaign events next week.
In Ohio, where Romney is holding campaign events Friday, Obama has a clear edge for that state’s 18 electoral votes — 50 percent of likely voters back the president and 43 percent support Romney.
And voters in all three states are more optimistic than they were in May, with at least 40 percent saying that the country is heading in the right direction. That suggests that voters are starting to believe that things are getting better — and that, as Bill Clinton said in his address at this month’s Democratic National Convention, Obama’s contract should be renewed.
The share of undecided voters is 6 percent in the Buckeye State, and 5 percent in Florida and Virginia, according to the poll, and more than 80 percent of voters in those states have firmly made up their minds.
“This is an electorate that pretty much is now all about, from the campaign standpoint, mobilization. Persuasion is going to take a second seat right now,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, in an interview with NBC News. “This is about getting your base out, not about appealing to a shrinking middle.”
Since 1944, Ohio has gone with the winner of the presidential election every year except 1960.
Obama and Vice President Biden have lavished attention on Ohio, visiting frequently and emphasizing what they view as the success of the auto bailout and Obama’s role in the state’s lowered unemployment rate — 8.6 percent in January 2009 and 7.2 percent now.
Romney’s path to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency is much steeper than Obama’s. The former Massachusetts governor must win two of these three battleground states; Obama can win just one and keep the White House with victories in Colorado and Nevada.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week shows Obama leading Romney among registered voters by 50 percent to 44 percent, although the margin narrows to 49 percent to 48 percent among likely voters.
Obama’s lead in Virginia, where the unemployment rate is lower than the national average, suggests that he has benefited from an ad blitz focused on key groups like women voters, and that voters link his policies to that state’s improved economy.
Romney launched an ad blitz last week in the state, highlighting possible cuts to defense spending that would be enacted under a deal reached last summer by the White House and Congress that was designed to force action on the deficit.
Rather than expanding the map to states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, Romney’s field of play seems to be shrinking. His campaign had hoped that his Michigan roots would play well in that state, but a new poll shows him lagging by 10 points there. There are signs that the choice of Paul Ryan has put Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) in play — Vice President Biden visited this week, suggesting that the polls are getting closer.
Romney, who chose to spend much of his time fundraising this summer rather than keeping a heavy campaign schedule, has ramped up his activity as Obama’s crowds have swelled in the days after his nominating speech.
Obama appeared at six rallies this week before a total of 23,000 supporters in New Hampshire, Iowa and Florida, stopping at diners and sports bars along the way.The shift in urgency may help account for the apparent popularity bounce Obama received after his acceptance speech Thursday in Charlotte.
Romney still faces a likability gap, and on Friday he sat with his wife, Ann, for an interview with talk-show hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan in which they chatted about movies and MTV’s Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi.
“I’m kind of a Snooki fan. Look how tiny’s she’s gotten. She’s lost weight,” Romney said, explaining why he liked the “Jersey Shore” star more than pageant sensation Honey Boo Boo, another reality TV staple. “She’s energetic. Just her spark-plug personality is kind of fun.”
On the foreign policy front, Romney in recent days has tried to score points over the situation in the Middle East, with aides suggesting that the wave of deadly protests would not have happened if Romney were at the helm.
Yet Republicans say Romney must lay out a clearer vision of what he would do in the White House if he is to make inroads on foreign policy, an area where Obama has a double-digit lead.
“Romney has a serious opportunity to emotionally connect with Americans who are concerned about our national security. Without agreeing with the administration, he can still praise the current actions of the military and the State Department handling the crisis, while loudly demanding that countries around the world provide the necessary protection around our embassies,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. “He may also have to deliver a serious foreign policy speech that would make him look presidential and less in campaign mode.”
Jerry Markon contributed to this report.