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Romney in need of clear message

TAMPA, Florida -- For a man basing his presidential hopes on a jobs-and-economy message, Mitt Romney has spent an inordinate amount of time on other issues, from abortion to the federal Medicare program to bad weather.

Many of the distractions have been beyond Romney's control, including a Republican congressman's blunder about rape, and the hurricane that essentially wiped out one-fourth of the Republican nominating convention. Others were of Romney's own doing.

Whatever the cause, Republican strategists fear precious time has been lost, and they are eager to use the convention's remaining days to regain control of Romney's message — and to throw President Barack Obama into the defensive posture they think he deserves.

Much of Tuesday's prime time, especially the speech by Romney's wife, Ann, was devoted to trying to put a more human face on the candidate. Other speakers highlighted the nation's 8.3-percent unemployment rate, seen as Obama's biggest political liability, and the crucial topic that has often slipped to the sidelines in recent weeks.

“I guarantee you Barack Obama is the happiest guy in the United States that we're talking about this,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told MSNBC this week, referring to yet another discussion of Rep. Todd Akin's claim that “legitimate rape” victims can somehow purposely avoid becoming pregnant.

“Because when we're talking about this, we're not talking about unemployment, we're not talking about a terrible economy,” Barbour said.

Barbour and others acknowledge that Republicans can't defeat Obama solely by addressing the economy. They must hit broader issues such as Medicare, and Romney must use the election's final 70 days to connect more deeply and warmly with voters.

But top advisers in both campaigns agree that Obama's stewardship of the economy is the overriding issue. That's why Republicans winced at the Aug. 19 remarks by Akin, Missouri's Republican Senate nominee, and other events that wrenched control of the campaign story line from Romney's hands.

On July 26, Romney got his much-anticipated foreign trip off to a bad start, angering Britons by questioning their readiness for the London Olympic Games. It was the start of a misstep-filled trip. He lost the story line for a day at least a month later, off-handedly alluding to the discredited notion that Obama is foreign-born.

“No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate,” Romney told Michigan voters. He later called the remark an innocent joke, but the hoopla surrounding it drove political headlines — just days before his convention was to convene.

Such gaffes might seem minor. But political strategists hate to see any day pass without helping shape the story.

“With two months to go until the election, every day that's not spent focused on the economy and jobs is a net loss for Romney,” said Republican consultant John Ullyot.

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