On bus tour, Romney aims to connect with undecided voters

Holly Bailey

BOSTON—After weeks of light campaigning, Mitt Romney will kick off his general election push in a major way on Friday, launching a five-day tour of six must-win battleground states this fall.

Romney's trip, titled the "Believe in America: Every Town Counts" tour, will kick off Friday morning at the Stratham, N.H., farm where he officially launched his 2012 bid just over a year ago.

From there, the presumptive Republican nominee will travel by bus and plane deep into states President Barack Obama won in 2008 that are up for grabs in November, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. Romney will wrap up his trip on Tuesday, with several scheduled rallies in his home state of Michigan, where recent polls have found him in a statistical tie with Obama heading into the fall.

"We're certainly campaigning on their turf, as opposed to our turf," said Russ Schriefer, a senior Romney adviser.

According to Romney aides, the tour will take the former Massachusetts governor through several small towns per day as the campaign seeks to undermine Obama's bid for a second term by highlighting how the struggling economy has negatively impacted middle-class America.

But the trip also offers a major test for Romney, as he tries to convince average Americans who are still undecided about the election that he understands their plight and can lead the country better than Obama. It's an argument that Romney has struggled to make at times, amid criticism that he's too stiff and awkward on the stump and has trouble connecting with voters.

Not only will the tour mark Romney's most intense period of campaigning since early in the GOP primaries, but the schedule appears to force Romney well out of his comfort zone on the trail. The Republican candidate is set to hold at least three formal events a day, but will also make impromptu stops at smaller venues along the way to meet and talk to random people.

[Get more updates from Romney's bus tour by following @hollybdc on Twitter]

Speaking extemporaneously has not been Romney's strength on the trail—though his aides have frequently countered that criticism by insisting voters will choose the candidate who offers the most compelling argument on how to revive the economy.

On that front, recent polls, including a Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week, have found Romney with a slight edge over Obama when it comes to which candidate voters believe will best handle jobs and the economy.

But Obama has long held an edge over Romney when it comes to who voters personally like the most. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found Obama with an 11-point lead over Romney in favorability. It was one of the smallest gaps this year, but it was still enough to give many Republican operatives close to the Romney campaign pause, amid concerns that a too-close-to-call election could very well come down to which candidate voters like the most.

In recent weeks, Romney has stepped up his efforts to demonstrate that he's connecting with average Americans on the trail and feels the pain they are going through. Before almost every public event, he holds a private meeting with local residents to hear their tales of life under the tough economy, and he often repeats those stories on the stump.

But Romney's key argument against Obama in recent days has been that actions speak louder than words—and the Romney campaign knows it will take more than stories of his sit-downs with average people to convince struggling Americans that Romney truly cares about them.

And that's why Romney's bus tour will be heavy on optics. After his speech at the Scamman Farm in New Hampshire on Friday, Romney will hold an ice cream social with his wife, Ann, in nearby Milford before heading to Pennsylvania, where he's hoping to erase Obama's advantage in the polls by touring cities hard hit by the collapse of manufacturing in the state.

On Sunday, Romney will take his bus tour to Ohio, where his first public event is a Father's Day pancake breakfast in Brunswick. The GOP candidate will be joined by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who is frequently mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate. Later in the day, Romney will visit a diner with House Speaker John Boehner, their first appearance together this campaign.

On Monday, Romney is scheduled to campaign with another rumored VP candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, in Janesville, Wis., the congressman's hometown where a General Motors plant closed in 2009. He then heads to Iowa, where he'll tour the eastern part of the state.

Romney will spend the final day of his bus tour in Michigan, where he's expected to make an appearance at the Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth, famous for its chicken dinners. He'll also visit a pie company in DeWitt before wrapping up his tour in Holland, where he'll hold a rally at a park near Lake Michigan.