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Analysis: Romney's play-it-safe strategy at risk

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Romney delivers his soap box speech at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Romney delivers his soap box speech at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines

By Ros Krasny

BOSTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney is running a disciplined campaign focused on slamming President Barack Obama and promoting his own skills, but pressure could mount for a more aggressive approach as his poll numbers worsen.

This week a trio of opinion surveys showed Romney trailing Texas Governor Rick Perry, who jumped into the 2012 race less than two weeks ago and generated a blaze of mostly favorable publicity.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist, has been the nominal front-runner among Republicans so far, partly reflecting his name recognition after finishing second to John McCain in his 2008 run.

Romney's second White House run, launched in June, has been designed around almost daily attacks on Obama. His campaign appearances have been relatively scarce and balanced by a heavy fund-raising schedule.

"We've stayed focused on talking to people about why Governor Romney is the best alternative to President Obama on the most important issue facing our country: jobs and the economy. That's what this race will be about," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.

The Romney campaign issues regular videos on the theme "Obama Isn't Working," which highlights high unemployment. It mocked the president's recent bus trip through the Midwest as a "Magical Misery Tour," complete with tie-dye T-shirts available for a $30 campaign pledge.

Romney has led most polls among the Republican challengers this year, but with numbers well below levels that create a sense of inevitability.

Both Gallup and Public Policy Polling on Wednesday issued national surveys of likely Republican primary voters that showed Rick Perry holding a sizable lead.

"So far he (Romney) has really played it safe. I really think that strategy can't continue with Rick Perry in the race," said Krystal Ball, a Democratic strategist and former Congressional contender in Virginia.

"If Romney is going to stay in the game, he has to take more risks."

TOO EARLY FOR PANIC?

Political scientist Charles Franklin said it was too early for Romney to panic about Perry, but his campaign needs to stay on its toes.

Romney has been polite but distant in talking about Perry. In New Hampshire, this week he termed the Texan "a very effective candidate ... maybe when the field narrows down to two or three we'll spend more time talking about each other."

"So far, the Romney strategy to not be reactive to the 'flavor of the week' is smart. But it's only in hindsight when we know if someone was a flash in the pan or not," said Franklin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Indeed, the 2012 Romney campaign has been shaped by a different dynamic from the wide-open 2008 race: running against an incumbent with low approval ratings who has left many of his previous supporters disappointed.

His strategists believe voters will respond positively to Romney's business pedigree as the polar opposite of Obama.

As the leading moderate among Republican contenders, Romney also might hope that his opponents simply beat each other up.

"My sense is that Romney's strategy is based on the assumption that Bachmann, Perry and others, even Rick Santorum, will fight it out among themselves," said Donna Robinson Divine, professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

"Then, Romney will be able to claim that he is focusing on the real issue -- capturing the White House. It has been a sound strategy. Whether he has to change it at this point is unclear."

Divine said the danger is that Romney's campaign could lose control of the message; this week's pro-Perry opinion polls could be the start of such a trend.

The Gallup survey had Perry with 29 percent support among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Romney was at 17 percent, down 6 points from a month ago, with Texas Congressman Ron Paul at 13 percent and Bachmann at 10 percent.

"The polls create a certain narrative that could force Romney to change tactics," said Divine.

As voting in the 2012 primaries draws closer, Romney's campaign might need to acknowledge a shift in the electorate with a sharper tone, said Ball.

In polling, Romney does better among independent leaning Republicans and moderates, but they don't typically vote in big numbers in primaries," she said.

Even compared with 2008, Republican voters are more conservative, largely because of the emergence of the Tea Party that was so influential in the 2010 mid-term elections and in the recent fractious debate over raising the U.S. debt limit.

"I think Mitt Romney really has to do some soul searching about what the Republican party is. at this point in time," Ball said. "The Republicans are looking for someone to get aggressive in attacking Obama."

Ultimately, though, strategists think Romney, who has a large campaign funding warchest, will be ready for hand-to-hand combat if he needs to.

"I suspect if he sees Perry approaching some kind of tipping point, Romney will engage him," said Divine.

(Additional reporting by Jason McLure; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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