CANTON, Ohio—Mitt Romney is spending his final day before Super Tuesday traveling through eastern Ohio, a region that has been especially hard hit by job losses and housing foreclosures.
Romney aides have long argued that this kind of political landscape favors their candidate in a general election matchup against President Barack Obama. But that was before Romney got caught up in a tougher than expected Republican primary that has left all the candidates bruised and battered. And the race isn't over yet.
In recent weeks, as negative ads have dominated the airwaves, Romney's unfavorable numbers have been slowly picking up. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that just 28 percent of likely general election voters view him favorably, while 39 percent view him unfavorably. That's a 3 point hike since January. Among independent voters, who are likely to determine the outcome of November's election, Romney's numbers are even more dismal, as just 22 percent view the former Massachusetts governor favorably.
According to the NBC/WSJ poll, at this stage in the game, Romney's image is worse than past Republican nominees, including John McCain, whose favorable rating was at 47 percent in March 2008. George W. Bush had a 43 percent approval in 2000 and Bob Dole was at 35 percent favorable in March 1996.
At the same time, Romney, who once held a slight lead over Obama in the polls, has seen this advantage slip away. According to the NBC/WSJ poll, Obama now leads Romney by 6 points, 50 percent to 44 percent.
Still, one of Romney's chief arguments on the campaign stump is that he's the strongest candidate to face Obama in November. At every stop, he talks up his private sector experience and his position as a Washington outsider.
"I look at this campaign right now, and I see a lot of folks talking about lots of things," Romney said at an appearance at a guardrail factory in Canton, Ohio. "What we need to talk about to beat President Obama is jobs. Other people in this race have debated about the economy, they've read about the economy, they've talked about it in subcommittee meetings but I've actually been in it. … And that's what we need to defeat Obama."
Privately, Romney aides fret about the impact of a protracted primary campaign that is showing no signs of wrapping up thanks to opponents who have proved they can subsist on tiny bank accounts and ad campaigns funded by super PACs.
"It's not helpful," a senior Romney aide acknowledged last week. "But what can we do beyond fight from state to state?"
With an eye on November, the Romney campaign has sought in recent days to soften the candidate's image. Over the last week, Romney has scrapped his usual routine of delivering a basic stump speech to take questions from voters—a move that has allowed him to appear more loose on the stump and has given him an opportunity to talk at length about his family and life experiences in moments that might otherwise come off as staged and phony.
And while Romney has been forced to shift his focus toward his opponents in his remarks to voters, he's also kept the focus on Obama as much as possible—frequently making references to promises the president made in speeches four years ago and talking about the president's "failed policies." Aides hope the dueling message will boost Romney's chances against Obama if he emerges as the nominee.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, dismissed concerns the primary process could prove to be too damaging for his boss.
"When this primary is over and people have had their heads knocked in by one another, that's just the nature of a hard fought campaign," he said. "We hit the reset button and the campaign begins anew with a different opponent. We'll be able to draw sharp contrasts with the president, and the president alone, not worrying about our competition. It will be a different race at that point, and the numbers will begin again."
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