By Charles Babington and Brian Bakst
WASHINGTON -- Middle East violence is shaking up a presidential race that otherwise looks stubbornly stable, and tight. President Obama holds a tiny edge, Republican Mitt Romney is seeking a breakthrough message, and three debates are ahead in the campaign's final seven weeks.
Republicans and Democrats agree the 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.
Criticisms 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.
"They want to go back to the same old policies that got us in trouble in the first place," former President Bill Clinton is shown saying in the 60-second TV ad.
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 <t40>...<t$> and this is a campaign which I think will come into focus as the debates occur."
Frustration is showing in some GOP 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 GOP'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.
Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said fears about turnout keep him up at night.
"It's a huge state, requiring a massive effort," Arceneaux said. "It's the largest and strongest ground game this state has ever seen. But knowing what we have to get done in the next eight weeks, we worry about it."
The campaign's final seven weeks will dump new torrents of TV ads on the few competitive states, fueled by the eye-popping fundraising of Romney, Obama and their supporters. In a single visit to New York City last week, Romney collected $7.5 million at three events, his campaign said.
The TV spots' effectiveness could fade as weary viewers tune them out. That would elevate the importance of the "ground game" -- the phone calls and door-to-door contacts the parties use to bring their voters to the polls.
In an election this tight, virtually any factor -- turnout, a debate gaffe, an economic surprise -- might decide the outcome. Or it might turn on a mundane, hard-to-measure event, such as Romney suddenly finding ways to connect with voters who are within inches of abandoning the president.
"A lot of them I talk to are tired of Obama, but they're not sure they like Mitt Romney either," said Deb Gann, head of the Fayette County Republican Party in Iowa. "A lot of people I talk to just don't know who is the lesser of two evils."
For now at least, Democrats are buoyed by what they see as Romney's lurches from subject to subject. They pointed to his quick denunciation of the Cairo embassy's appeal for calm last week when Muslims began rampaging in protest of an amateur video that denigrates Islam.
Democrats accused Romney of politicizing a tragedy. Hawkish conservatives cheered Romney's claims that Obama shows weak, halting leadership overseas.
Obama aides said Romney has miscalculated, failing to assure Americans he would respond in judicious, level-headed ways to crises. Other Democrats said Romney is grasping for any rung that might move him up the ladder.
"The central premise of his candidacy -- that he will be better than President Obama in dealing with the economy -- just isn't working," said Democratic consultant Jim Manley. "They keep on allowing themselves to be distracted by divisive social policy issues that are really out of the mainstream. And if Romney really is relying on foreign policy as his best shot to oppose the president, he's in deep, deep trouble."
Not so, said veteran GOP strategist Terry Holt.
"It's absolutely vital that our nominee speak to the issues that people are watching and talking about," Holt said of the Middle East violence.
"The challenge for Romney is to be a safe and credible alternative to the president," Holt said. "The chaos in the Middle East could be a game-changer in this election," he said, if it raises new questions about Obama's leadership and allows Romney to present a stronger, more resolute approach.
Bakst reported from Wisconsin. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples, Beth Fouhy, Kasie Hunt, Julie Pace and Ben Feller contributed to this report.