By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The last few weeks have been ugly for Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney.
A flat Republican convention, a fumbled response to unrest in the Middle East, reports of discord within his campaign and a secretly taped video of Romney deriding 47 percent of U.S. voters have left his team reeling - and has many Republicans fearing doom in the November 6 election.
Democratic President Barack Obama has opened a slight lead over Romney in national polls, and new surveys indicate that Obama has a significant edge where it matters most: in Ohio, Virginia and Florida, the most coveted of nine politically divided "swing" states that are crucial to cobbling together the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
So, seven weeks before the election, is it already over for Mitt Romney?
Not yet. Despite the serial gaffes and the many questions about his campaign, Romney remains within striking range of the president.
The former Massachusetts governor still has time to change the trajectory of the race - even though he has not shown an ability to do so for the past several months, as he has cast Obama as a failure in overseeing a struggling economy.
There are three presidential debates in October, and Romney - who during the past month lightened his campaign schedule in favor of debate practices - clearly is pointing toward the showdowns with Obama as a chance to show Americans he is a better bet to turn things around.
Obama remains vulnerable thanks to a stubbornly high 8.1 percent unemployment rate, tepid economic growth and big majorities of voters who believe the United States is on the wrong track.
"Romney just came out of one of the worst months in presidential politics in recent memory, and he's hanging right in there," Republican strategist Rich Galen said. "If I was one of Obama's guys in Chicago, I'd be thinking: 'What does it take to get rid of this guy?' He won't go away."
Romney still faces huge challenges.
Surveys indicate most Americans see Obama as relating to their concerns better than Romney, a former private equity executive with an estimated fortune of up to $250 million.
A Republican convention dedicated to humanizing Romney appeared to have no lasting impact on voters. The video of Romney denigrating Obama's supporters as not paying income taxes and living off government handouts reinforced Democrats' message that Romney is an out-of-touch rich guy.
ROMNEY MUST SOFTEN IMAGE
To have any hope of beating Obama, Romney must project a warmer image, analysts say.
Romney appeared to be trying to do that late on Wednesday in Florida, where he softened his tone on Obama's healthcare overhaul and on illegal immigration, and told Univision that "this is a campaign about the 100 percent."
The comments came as his campaign opened a new assault on Obama that aimed to cast the president as wanting to redistribute wealth from rich Americans to the less fortunate.
"The question for Romney is whether he can do what he so far has not been able to do, which is turn around his personal image and make people more comfortable with him," said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found more than 40 percent of voters viewed Romney less favorably after seeing the "47 percent" video. A USA Today/Gallup poll found the video made almost one-third of independents less likely to vote for him.
"Romney's likability is still not great. People don't see him as credible, he's not seen as empathetic," Kohut said. "He's got to find a way to overcome all those things."
As his campaign has struggled, there has been no shortage of advice from prominent Republicans, many of whom have urged him to be tougher on Obama and more specific on his plans.
In a Wall Street Journal column on Thursday, Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote that "Romney has had a bad week but he can recover - if he tells voters more clearly what he would do as president."
A gaffe-free closing stretch from the sometimes awkward Romney is another key. "I think it would really help if he stops making mistakes," Galen said.
The stakes will be enormous at the first presidential debate on October 3 in Denver. It will focus on the economy and set the narrative for the final month of the campaign.
"Romney will have his best chance to paint a vivid and compelling picture of a brighter economic future," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said.
The Real Clear Politics average of national polls put Obama ahead by 3.1 percentage points on Thursday, with the Rasmussen daily tracking poll showing Obama with a 2-point lead and Gallup showing a dead-even race.
Other polls this week showed Obama with a larger lead, and in some cases crossing the 50 percent benchmark in support.
The Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll on Thursday had Obama leading 48 percent to 43 percent. A Pew poll gave Obama an 8-point edge, 51 percent to 43 percent, and an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had Obama leading by 50 percent to 45 percent.
Obama also leads in eight of the nine most competitive toss-up states, giving him more options as he tries to piece together 270 electoral votes. Obama could survive a loss in Ohio or Florida - or even both - but losses in either state would be crippling to Romney.
"The lead Obama has in these critical states is far from insurmountable. They are in single digits," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll. "If the national dialogue were to shift two or three points, those battleground states would get close in a hurry."
A PUSH IN 'SWING' STATES
The leader in the presidential race in mid-September typically holds on to win. But recent contests also have shown the race can shift dramatically in the last two months.
On September 20, 2004, the Real Clear Politics average of national polls gave President George W. Bush an average 5.7- percentage-point lead over Democrat John Kerry. He eventually beat Kerry by only 1.5 points.
The Romney campaign has cited the 1980 race as a model, when Republican Ronald Reagan trailed Democratic President Jimmy Carter for much of the autumn in the Gallup poll but blew open the race late after a strong performance in their only debate.
But recent polls show no signs of improvement for Romney on some key indicators. The Pew poll found Obama was seen by a 3-to-1 ratio as the candidate who connects best with Americans.
Romney's lead on handling the economy, the biggest issue in the election, also has faded, with the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing Romney and Obama tied on the issue. Pew and Gallup polls also found Democratic enthusiasm had jumped since Obama's nominating convention.
Republicans in "swing" states said, however, they were encouraged by the Romney campaign's voter-turnout efforts, designed to counter Obama's vaunted organization.
Fergus Cullen, a former state Republican chairman in New Hampshire, said Romney's campaign there was more organized than Republican John McCain's effort in 2008.
"With McCain in 2008, we could feel it slipping away by late September," Cullen said. "I don't feel that at all this time."
Ayres said that Romney "is in every bit as strong a position to win the presidency today as he was in June or July or August. Is he ahead? No. Is he close against an incumbent president? Most definitely. Does he have the potential to win? Without question."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney)