Can Romney 'connect'? Poised to clinch nomination, GOP candidate faces next test

Mitt Romney, after weathering an onslaught of rotating primary challengers over the course of the last year, is poised to clinch the Republican presidential nomination as early as Tuesday.

In doing so, his campaign will complete its shift, from knocking off Republican rivals one by one to challenging a single Democratic opponent, President Obama.

And with the Obama campaign now pouring airtime and resources into the latest attacks on Romney's private equity experience, the GOP candidate is discovering early that one of his biggest advantages in the primaries -- his war chest -- isn't quite so impressive in the general.

The latest campaign finance figures from April underscore the financial distance between them at the unofficial start of this contest. Obama had $115 million on hand; Romney had $9.2 million.

The reality of an incumbent's -- particularly this incumbent's -- fundraising power means Romney may have to focus more on message and more on his own personal story. It's a challenging task for somebody who lacks a classic rags-to-riches tale. But Romney the family man, Romney the faithful husband and Romney the determined businessman could start to make a bigger appearance as the race turns from a test of party purity to one of personal connections.

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"He doesn't need to make a hardcore ideological argument, but he does need to connect with these people in a way that is lasting and sustained," GOP pollster Adam Geller said, urging the candidate to "tell his story."

Geller said Romney needs to do a much better job of connecting with the "frustrated middle class" and especially America's decisive political middle. At the same time, he has to avoid looking insincere. "It can't be the John Kerry-eating-the-cheesesteak moment," Geller quipped, recalling Kerry's 2003 gaffe of ordering a cheesesteak with Swiss -- which simply isn't done.

Romney could wrap up the nomination Tuesday evening with the voter-rich Texas primary. Based on the Associated Press tally, he needs at least 60 delegates to reach the 1,144-delegate threshold that will earn him the title of nominee. Texas offers a total of 155.

The campaign immediately faces historical headwinds in its bid to unseat an incumbent -- Jimmy Carter stands as the only Democratic president in the last century to lose his re-election bid -- and an unfriendly electoral-vote map.

By most analyses, the Democratic candidate starts out with an advantage in that regard. The number of electoral votes in solidly Democratic states simply is greater than the number in solidly Republican states.

The Cook Political Report, which tracks these numbers, estimates there are 182 electoral votes in states considered a lock for Democrats, versus 143 in states considered a lock for Republicans.

The Democratic advantage holds when states that lean one way or another are factored in. Still, more than a dozen states are on the table -- and Romney showed during the protracted primary that he's at least competitive in several of them.

The former Massachusetts governor, in January, dominated the Florida GOP primary. He also won, albeit by a slim margin, in Ohio. And he emerged on top in the lesser battleground states of Arizona, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada and Wisconsin -- as well as Virginia, though his top GOP rivals were not on the ballot in that particular contest. Those states alone are worth 107 electoral votes on the road to 270, though most will be fiercely contested in the fall.

"There's not a lot of wiggle room here," Geller noted. But he said aside from the usual swing contests of Florida and Ohio, the race could come down to an otherwise overlooked state light on electoral votes, like New Hampshire, which has just four electoral votes.

From the looks of the opening round, the general election battle will not be a pleasant one.

The Obama campaign, despite some dissension in the Democratic ranks, is pressing ahead with its effort to highlight companies that went under following the involvement of Romney's former company, Bain Capital.

Obama strategist Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, told CBS' "Face the Nation" over the weekend that "people have a visceral reaction to Mitt Romney's time" at the firm.

"What Bain Capital never did was focus on job creation. That is not what Bain Capital does. It loads up companies with debt, it takes money out of those companies and pays those investors," he said.

Romney adviser Ed Gillespie disputed the claim, saying "there is a correlation" between "growing a company and job creation."

As the Republican candidate presses ahead and introduces himself to a broader swath of voters, he'll be challenged to defend his days at Bain.

Potentially working in Romney's favor, though, is the element of surprise and the potential crossover appeal inherent in whoever he chooses as his vice presidential nominee. By contrast, polling over the past year has shown Americans somewhat tiring of Obama's No. 2, Vice President Biden. The latest Gallup survey showed 42 percent view him favorably, while 45 percent view him unfavorably.

Polls, meanwhile, continue to show Romney struggling to convince people to vote for him, rather than against Obama. In a Fox News poll released May 16, 43 percent of those supporting Romney said they were doing so because he's "not Obama." Just 11 percent of Obama's supporters said they were backing the president because he's "not Romney." In that poll, Obama was leading Romney 46-39 percent.

"When you're running against an incumbent, you necessarily have to get people to vote for you ... who voted for the incumbent," said Fox News analyst Karl Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush and co-founder of conservative group Crossroads GPS.