By John Whitesides
DENVER (Reuters) - Heading into his first debate with Democratic President Barack Obama on Wednesday, Republican Mitt Romney has some convincing to do.
During the next five weeks - and three debates - Romney will make an appeal to voters aimed at overcoming an Obama campaign that has outflanked his own for much of the past four months. Romney enters the final sprint to the November 6 election behind in national polls and trailing in most of the nine or so politically divided "swing" states that are likely to decide the election.
Just as important, Romney trails Obama among likely voters on a broad array of issues and personal ratings that reflect the scope of the challenge Romney faces in trying to come from behind and snatch the presidency from the Democratic incumbent.
A series of Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls indicate that Obama has small leads over Romney on separate questions about which candidate would best handle the economy and who could create more jobs, even though Romney has made his business experience as the head of a private equity firm the centerpiece of his campaign.
Obama has double-digit leads on who would do better on taxes, 45 percent to 35 percent, and on dealing with the Social Security retirement program, 43 percent to 31 percent.
Likely voters are particularly supportive of Obama on more personal issues. Romney, who has been portrayed by Obama's campaign as an out-of-touch millionaire, trails Obama by about 30 points among likely voters who were asked which candidate was more likable. Romney trails by 20 points on the question of which candidate best understood voters.
Such questions touching on Romney's likability and empathy might pale in importance to questions about the economy and other domestic policies but taken together they present significant hurdles for Romney, whose difficulty in connecting with voters has been a constant problem of his campaign.
"Those personal attributes are soft metrics," Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said. "But they contribute to how much a voter trusts and feels comfortable with a candidate."
AN ‘IMPORTANT OPPORTUNITY'
Wednesday's debate is expected to be seen by about 60 million television viewers and will give voters a chance to compare Obama and Romney side-by-side for the first time.
The Denver debate will focus on domestic policy and will be followed by a town hall-type session on October 16 in Hempstead, New York, and a session on foreign policy in Boca Raton, Florida, on October 22. The events will offer the candidates a way to cut through the considerable political noise surrounding a campaign in which more than $2 billion is being spent, much of it to attack the opposition.
For Romney, the debates represent his best chance to reverse voters' views of how he stacks up against Obama by pressing his argument that Obama is a failure in managing the economy. The debates also will give Romney a chance to bolster his personal image, which has taken a beating in polls as Obama's team has cast him as an out-of-touch rich guy who, while leading Bain Capital, sent thousands of U.S. jobs overseas.
"The debates are absolutely the right forum to move those numbers" in the polls, Clark said. "If Romney can gain ground on some of those personal questions, it could help him."
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has been taking time off the campaign trail for weeks to prepare for the debates, which a campaign adviser acknowledged on Monday represent an "important opportunity."
"I think that focusing on the issues that people care about can make you more likable," Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden said.
"And people will come away from the debates saying, 'You know what, Governor Romney, he understands some of the problems I'm facing every single day and he's got solutions to help overcome the country's challenges. And as a result I feel better about my vote for him,'" Madden said.
Obama's rise in recent nationwide and state polls has been aided by what several polls have identified as increasing optimism about the direction of the country, even as the economy continues to struggle.
Reuters/Ipsos data shows Obama ahead of Romney 42 percent to 38 percent on the question of who would better lead the economy and 44 percent to 39 percent on who has the better plan to create jobs.
Obama's campaign spent much of the summer and millions of dollars on ads that portrayed Romney as unable to relate to the concerns of middle-class Americans and criticized his leadership at Bain Capital, which critics say plundered some of the companies it took over and cut jobs in the name of profits.
The Reuters/Ipsos polling of more than 1,600 likely voters indicates the tactics seemed to work.
On the question of which candidate has the right values, Obama leads 47 percent to 37 percent. On which candidate is tough enough for the job, Obama leads by 45 percent to 38 percent, and on the question of which candidate better represents America, Obama leads 48 percent to 38 percent.
"The White House has done the most effective job I've seen in negatively defining an opponent," said Peter Brown of the nonpartisan Quinnipiac University poll. "They have made Romney, in the eyes of many voters, a rich, unfeeling elitist who does not understand how Americans live their lives."
Romney will have a chance to turn around that perception in Wednesday's debate. A Quinnipiac poll released on Tuesday found nearly one in 10 voters believed they could see something in the debates that would change their vote - a potentially significant number in a tight race.
It also showed that a solid majority of voters expect Obama to win the debate, giving Romney an advantage in expectations heading into the encounter.
"Romney does have a low bar," Brown said. "The public expectation is that Obama is going to clean his clock."
(Editing by David Lindsey, Bill Trott and Vicki Allen)