Middle East violence is shaking up an otherwise stable, and tight, presidential race, with President Barack Obama holding a slight edge over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who is seeking a breakthrough message.
Republicans and Democrats agree the November election probably will be decided on Obama's jobs-and-economy record. Both campaigns are gearing up for the new week by trying to shift the focus back to that issue. But foreign policy leaped to the forefront in recent days when protesters attacked U.S. diplomats and missions in the Middle East, and it's unclear when it will recede.
Criticism of Romney's quick-draw response to the protests underscored both his foreign policy vulnerabilities and the difficulty in knocking off an incumbent, especially one who remains relatively well-liked despite a struggling economy. Obama used the trappings of the presidency to full advantage. He led somber events honoring the four U.S. officials killed in Libya. He also needled his challenger by saying that Romney "seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later."
As unrest abroad continues, Obama is launching an aggressive effort to convince voters in the most competitive states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia — that his economic policies are working and that Romney is risking the nation's recovery with a plan that caters to multimillionaires over the middle class.
The U.S. president is not chosen by a nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests. That makes these battleground states especially important in a tight election.
Romney is trying to get back to the economy, his strength, even as a new national survey by The New York Times and CBS News finds that he has lost his longstanding edge on the question of whom voters view as most likely to restore the economy and create jobs. Voters are feeling slightly more optimistic that the president's policies are helping. Still, that poll and others found the race narrowly divided.
"Beating an incumbent is never easy," Romney told ABC on Friday. He dismissed polls that show Obama ahead. "I'm doing well ... and this is a campaign which I think will come into focus as the debates occur."
Frustration is showing in some Republican circles because Romney has failed to move ahead Obama despite months of highlighting the nation's high jobless rate and the millions of dollars spent pushing an economic message on TV. Romney allies are urging him to find a message that will persuade disillusioned voters to give him a chance. They reject the notion that Romney is careening from topic to topic, despite recent emphases on Medicare and international leadership.
Diverse advice is pouring into Romney's camp: Paint Obama as a weak leader at home and abroad; shift the focus firmly back to the economy; fire up the conservative base; concentrate on the relatively small number of undecided voters.
Some of Romney's associates, including his running mate, say personality, not policy, may hold the key to reassuring wary voters.
"I'm not the only one who has told Mitt that maybe he needs to talk more about himself and his life," Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee, told conservative activists Friday.
The buttoned-down Romney has relatively little time to show a warmer, more assuring side to voters. Three presidential debates in October may offer his best chance.
In the race to reach 270 electoral votes for victory, polls suggest Obama holds slight edges in the crucial states of Ohio, Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire. And internal polling by both campaigns shows close races in Colorado, Iowa and Nevada. Both sides agree that Romney is doing better in North Carolina, which Obama narrowly carried in 2008.
The wild card might be Wisconsin, Ryan's home state, which Obama won by 14 percentage points over Arizona Sen. John McCain. Both campaigns are spending money there. Vice President Joe Biden visited Wisconsin on Thursday, and Obama is scheduled to go this coming week.
Ohio and Florida are the most coveted toss-up states. Romney's election is not assured even if he wins both. A failure to carry either state would almost surely doom his chances.
Obama's prospects in Ohio appear to have improved lately, perhaps because his rescue of the auto industry is generally popular. Still, Ohio Democrats are not celebrating.
"We've seen plenty of examples of how dynamic these races are," said Greg Haas, Democratic chairman of Franklin County. "I don't think anyone on our side is, or should be, taking it easy."
In Florida, the biggest battleground prize, Republicans worry that Romney can't seem to close the deal in a state hampered by high unemployment and home foreclosures. Democrats, however, fear Obama's edge in the state may be fleeting and they fret about Florida's undecided voters. They're also nervous about legal battles over state voter laws that could cut into Obama's support among minorities.