COLUMBUS, Ohio » For weeks, Republicans in Ohio have been watching with worry that the state’s vital 18 electoral votes were trending away from Mitt Romney. The anxiety has been similar in Florida, where Republicans are concerned that President Barack Obama was gaining the upper hand in the fight for the state’s 29 electoral votes.
Those fears are affirmed in the findings of the latest Quinnipiac University//CBS News polls of likely voters in both states, which show that Obama has widened his lead over Romney and is outperforming him on nearly every major campaign issue, even though about half said they were disappointed in Obama’s presidency.
The polls, along with interviews with supporters and advisers in the nation’s two largest battleground states, lay bare an increasingly urgent challenge facing Romney as he prepares for his next chance to move the race in his favor, at the first debate with Obama next week. Romney’s burden is no longer to win over undecided voters but also to woo back the voters who seem to be growing a little comfortable with the idea of a second term for Obama.
As Romney arrived in Ohio on Tuesday for a two-day bus tour and the president was set to campaign here Wednesday, the poll also found potential openings where Romney could gain support. More voters say he will be better than Obama at tackling the budget deficit — the only major issue where he had such an edge — and a majority agree with his assertions that the government is doing too much of what should be left to individuals and businesses.
But Romney is facing mounting hurdles in these two critical battlegrounds that hold nearly as many electoral votes as the rest of the swing states combined. Romney’s lead among older Americans has shifted toward an advantage for Obama; his competitiveness with Obama on who would better handle the economy has dipped into slightly negative territory; more view Romney unfavorably than favorably — the opposite is true for the president — and majorities say Romney does not care about the problems of people like them.
In Columbus, where both campaigns are advertising heavily, the sense that Romney is still failing to connect with average, working-class voters, is causing concern among some supporters.
At the Maranatha Baptist Church, which sits in the middle of an industrial area on the outskirts of town, the Rev. Timothy Kenoyer said that even though he believed Obama was auguring an era of "socialism" — and that an economic malaise had set into his neighborhood — he was pessimistic about Romney’s chances.
"If Romney was a middle-class man, or not incredibly wealthy, that would be a contributor to a greater degree of accessibility," Kenoyer said.
Accusing the mainstream media of favoring Obama, he said he would vote for Romney, based more on the Republican Party platform.
He added, "He doesn’t fire me up."
That tracked with the survey results that found that 48 percent of likely Romney voters in Ohio supported him with reservations or because they dislike Obama, compared with 51 percent who said they strongly favored him. Obama is strongly favored by two-thirds of his likely voters, with 33 percent saying they favor him with reservations or because of dislike of Romney.
The , in collaboration with Quinnipiac University and CBS News, is tracking the presidential race with recurring polls in six states. In Ohio — which no Republican has won the presidency without — Obama is leading Romney 53 to 43 percent in the poll. In Florida, the president leads Romney 53 to 44 in the poll.
The surveys, which had margins of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for each candidate, also included a Pennsylvania poll, where Obama is leading Romney by 12 percentage points.
The polls were conducted as the Romney campaign grappled with fallout last week from the release of his tax returns and remarks he made at a fundraiser in which he bluntly suggested that 47 percent of Americans saw themselves as victims who are dependent on the government. That was the latest in a string of setbacks for the campaign that appears to be sapping the optimism of some of his supporters.
"Romney needs a PR person," Natalie McGee, a law student at Ohio State University who supports Romney, said during an interview on campus, where Obama volunteers were working to register voters and rally supportive students.
With 41 days remaining until the election, aides to Romney acknowledge that they are not leading in either state but dispute the characterization that the race has shifted toward Obama. The political director, Rich Beeson, told reporters aboard Romney’s plane that the campaign’s internal data showed a closer race, saying, "The public polls are what they are."
Several Republican strategists in Florida said that they believe Obama has an advantage but disputed it was as wide as the poll suggested. Some polls have shown the race in Florida to be tighter, although Obama has gained strength in some recent polls.
In the Florida poll, among the likely voters who say they are "definitely" going to vote, more respondents identified themselves as Democrats (36 percent) than those who identified themselves as Republicans (27 percent); independents were 33 percent. The Florida poll found that Obama holds nearly a 20-point lead among women, while Romney’s edge among men is about 3. The Obama campaign intends to increase its advertising, aides said, to try to keep pushing Florida away from Romney as early voting begins next week.
Sharon Whalen, 56, a former travel agent from Dade City who said she and her husband voted for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee in 2008, said she had developed "a very bad impression of Romney." She said she intends to support Obama and is troubled by the Republican ticket’s plan for Medicare.
"There’s just something about him I don’t trust," said Whalen, a poll respondent who spoke in a follow-up interview. "It’s not so much that I don’t believe what he is saying, but I just don’t think he’s for the middle and lower class. He’s more for helping the rich."
In interviews in Florida, some Republicans expressed frustration with Romney and the difficulty his campaign has had seizing on the dissatisfaction with the president. They said that they hope Romney adheres to an economic message in the closing stretch of the race.
"Every day of the campaign that goes by that the unemployment rate, the deficit and the size of government isn’t talked about, is a day lost for the Romney campaign," said Justin Sayfie, a Florida co-chairman of the Romney campaign. "I hope we can figure out new and different ways to talk about these issues."
Yet the polls in these two states found Romney vying closely with Obama among voters who call themselves independents. And half of likely voters say they are somewhat or very disappointed in Obama’s presidency, leaving an opening for Romney.
In Ohio, Romney’s aides have argued that economic pain is still plentiful around the state and that Obama’s rising poll ratings were unsustainable. As Romney’s campaign seeks to play off of economic pessimism, he is navigating a mixed picture.
The state’s unemployment rate of 7.2 percent in August was below the national average, although some areas are doing better than others. And some independents said Romney still had work to do to close the sale with them.
"I think my major reservation is that I just don’t have a whole lot of information about Romney," Mike Warburton, 47, and an independent of Akron, said in a follow-up interview.
Romney’s comments about the "47 percent" of Americans seemed to be undercutting him with other working-class voters here.
"This last thing where he was going on about the 47 percent who are dependent on government is hard to swallow," said Kenneth Myers, a Republican who lives in Mansfield and is unemployed. "I think I’m part of the 47 percent he is talking about. But I don’t want to be dependent on the government."