By KASIE HUNT and STEVE PEOPLES
BOSTON - Mitt Romney faces urgent tasks as he heads into a new phase of the White House race: Repair an image damaged by negative Democratic advertising and shift the trajectory of a campaign that's seen him lose ground to President Barack Obama.
He's got opportunities, starting with a big battleground-state bus tour beginning Saturday. Then comes his critical running-mate announcement and the TV hoopla of a national convention, where he'll accept the Republican nomination he's sought for nearly a decade.
If the past few days are any indication, Romney will spend the coming weeks trying to gain ground largely by dragging Obama down on a host of issues. It's a shift away from the all-economy, all-the-time strategy of the past several months.
"Doesn't America deserve better than a president who will say or do anything to stay in power?" asks Romney's latest ad that seeks to undercut Obama's character. Aides say it will be on TV, but they won't say where.
That spot - and another running in battleground states that accuses Obama of moving to "gut welfare reform" by dropping work requirements - is part of an effort to use Romney's huge cash stockpile to undermine his Democratic rival. In much the same way, Obama and his allies have ripped into Romney over the past several months.
Three months before the election, the Democrats' latest strategy in appearances and in ads is to assail Romney on taxes - criticizing both his cuts-for-all policy stance and his refusal to make public his personal returns They say polls show that line of attack is effective, It also allows Obama to talk about the economy without focusing on high unemployment.
Of the nearly $500 million spent on television advertising in the campaign so far, Obama's team alone has spent $205 million for spots - most of them negative - compared to Romney's $60 million, according to media trackers. But pro-Romney outside groups have spent big on his behalf, giving Romney the ability to save his own money for the campaign's final stretch when he can control his own message in ads.
Combined, Romney and supportive outside groups, which are hammering Obama at every turn, have spent more than the president and his Democratic allies, $255 million to nearly $230 million. Romney and the GOP also significantly out-raised the president and the Democrats for three straight months. The campaign says Romney, the Republican National Committee and state GOP parties have nearly $186 million in cash on hand.
Despite those GOP advantages, the Democratic criticism has taken a toll on Romney.
Where the race was long virtually tied, polls now show Romney slightly trailing Obama nationally and in key states after a difficult summer that included a misstep-filled overseas trip. Romney aides dismiss those polls as inconsequential and point to voters who are still on summer vacation or focused on the Olympics.
Yet, two national polls found the Republican challenger's favorability ratings slipping from a positive tilt to an even divide, while two others found his unfavorable rating has grown six points among registered voters since the spring.
Romney's schedule in the coming weeks offers natural opportunities to try to change that.
The vice presidential selection - expected any day - will dominate headlines, and Romney's team has been relentlessly teasing the announcement.
"I can't wait to find out who Mitt will choose as his running mate. I'm just as excited as everyone else to meet the other half of America's Comeback Team!" Romney's wife, Ann, wrote in an email this week, encouraging supporters to visit the campaign website to donate and register for the chance to meet Romney and his pick in person. The campaign has also created a smart phone app designed to gather information from supporters while promising to notify them of Romney's decision as soon as it's made.
Many staffers inside Romney's Boston headquarters suspect that the former Massachusetts governor has already finalized his decision. But the selection process is so secret that some senior aides are left guessing about the candidate's identity and the timing of the announcement. The short list - if there is one - is believed to include Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.
The bus tour will include Romney appearances with Portman, as well as two others talked about as possible contenders: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
The tour starts Saturday and will take Romney through four must-win states in as many days: North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Ohio. All are battlegrounds where Obama won in 2008. And while the president could afford to lose in one or more of them and still reach the 270 electoral votes needed for another term, Romney almost certainly needs all four to beat him.
In first-up Virginia, Romney will stop in Norfolk, the center of the Hampton Roads region. Heavy on military voters, it's a section of the state Republicans have to win if they hope to carry Virginia in November. He'll also visit Ashland and Manassas, northern Virginia cities where his proposal to cut 10 percent of the federal workforce could hurt him.
In North Carolina on Sunday, Romney is hitting both the GOP heartland and the Democratic-heavy research triangle in the Raleigh area. In Florida, he's looking for swing voters in the Orlando area and stopping in Miami to make an appeal to the Cuban-Americans who typically vote Republican.
And in Ohio, he's visiting cities where the white working class vote will make a difference - including areas where Hillary Rodham Clinton was favored over candidate Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
The tour is certain to generate both local and national media coverage, giving Romney an opportunity to take his message directly to voters and test out criticisms of Obama for use in the homestretch.
Romney has varied his attacks this week, rolling out ads accusing Obama of waging a "war on religion," pushing to "gut welfare reform" and trying to "use the tragedy of a woman's death for political gain." That last was a reference to an outside group's advertisement that features a man whose wife died of cancer after he lost his health insurance when he was laid off from a company that was bought by the private equity firm Romney once ran.
As August ends, Romney will get perhaps his final chance to make a strong impression with the nation before the homestretch.
Large swaths of the country will get their first close look at the former Massachusetts governor when he accepts his party's nomination in Tampa, Fla., at the party's national convention, an event aimed at providing a week of positive news coverage for the candidate.
The campaign, working with the party, has crafted a program designed to appeal to independents and fire up Romney's conservative base at the same time.
Romney's next big chance to shift momentum in the race - and repair his image - won't come until a series of October debates.