WASHINGTON — The presidential campaign hits the road this week, with the stakes particularly high for Mitt Romney as he strives to firm up his image before debates take over the following week.
His gaffes and stiffness have become familiar topics for TVs talkers and jokesters. Even fellow Republicans are assailing him for a lackluster campaign, one that appears more comfortable with cozy private fundraisers than the kind of made-for-television, momentum-building rallies candidates usually revel in.
Romney plans to try more old-fashioned barnstorming Tuesday and Wednesday, with a brief four-city bus tour of swing state Ohio. While hes rambling across Interstate 71, President Barack Obama plans to address the United Nations on Tuesday, in a speech thats likely to be aimed at a domestic audience as much as international.
The president is expected to discuss recent turmoil in the Arab region, pledging continued U.S. involvement in the area as he insists on security for U.S. personnel. Hes also likely to reiterate U.S. support for Israel and the need to contain Irans nuclear program.
Obama also faces risks. The recent crises in Libya and Egypt raise questions about his handling of the Arab Spring uprisings, and the U.N. appearance could underscore the frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Romney, though, faces the bigger domestic political challenge, if only because hes lagging in a key indicator of voter sentiment: Too many people dont like him.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted Sept. 12-16 found 45 percent viewed the former Massachusetts governor favorably, while 50 percent didnt.
No previous presidential candidate has been viewed more unfavorably than favorably at this point in a presidential campaign in Pew Research or Gallup September surveys going back to 1988, a Pew analysis found.
The poll, echoing the findings of other recent surveys, had other sobering news for Romney: Despite his convention, an advertising barrage and a running mate embraced warmly by party stalwarts, Romney has gained no ground on Obama in being seen as more credible or more empathetic, Pew said.
Obama now has a 3-to-1 edge over Romney 66 percent to 23 percent as the candidate who better connects with ordinary people.
Romneys running a corporate campaign, said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican magazine. They dont have a personal touch with constituents. The president and vice president have been more accessible in Iowa than Romney.
Mid-September polls in virtually every swing state put Obama ahead, an important development, since the surveys reflect voter opinion after the two party conventions. Also hurting Romney was his criticism of Obamas foreign policy, as well as the Florida video that surfaced Sept. 17 where Romney maintained that 47 percent of Americans will vote for Obama and believe they are victims who think government has a responsibility to care for them.
Put more starkly, the RealClearPolitics website, which compiles data from several pollsters, estimates Obama today is safely ahead in enough states to get 247 electoral votes to Romneys 191. A candidate needs 270 for election.
Romneys road to victory is narrowing. If Obama won all the states where he now leads and then took the tossup state of Floridas 29 electoral votes, he wins. A Fox News poll Sunday through Tuesday had Obama up 5 percentage points. A victory in Ohio, where Fox has Obama up 7 percentage points, would mean 18 electoral votes.
Of course, no one is declaring the election over. Events can jolt a race instantly, and history shows debates make a difference. Obama and Romney will debate three times in October, while Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan will meet Oct. 11.
In the meantime, Romney has a week to stir some pre-debate momentum, and analysts see him with at least three tasks:
Be likeable. Romney keeps stumbling when he tries to be a regular guy. In one recent attempt, he told Live! With Kelly and Michael that he was kind of a fan of Jersey Shores Snooki, which gave comedians a new source of material.
Stress the economy. Polls show voters still think Romney can do as well a job reviving the economy as Obama. While there are signs the economy is doing better, people are still worried. Romney needs to talk more broadly about his goals, said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He needs to develop a national strategy.
Engage reluctant voters. This is risky, because Obama does much better with Americans not likely to vote, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which studies such trends.
Romney badly needs a good pre-debate week, and the bus tour will be full of opportunity. But only if he gives voters reasons to go home and talk him up to their friends and neighbors.
At the moment, said New Haven, Conn.-based Republican consultant Chris DePino, theres a connection thats not being made.
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.