By CHARLES BABINGTON
SALISBURY, N.C. - Even with his strong debate performance, Mitt Romney needs every possible advantage to overtake President Barack Obama in the next four weeks. Not helping him much is the Republican Party he leads.
Thanks in part to congressional Republicans' no-compromise stands on key issues, and an unpopular past president in George W. Bush, the GOP's image is at one of its lowest points in modern times. Romney is now distancing himself a bit from some party policies, most notably by emphasizing that he doesn't want to cut taxes for high earners.
That's probably a smart move, say Republican activists in regions where it's getting harder to sell the party's brand.
When talking with unaffiliated voters, "it's more important to sell Romney" than Republican policies, said Jordan McSwain, 19, who makes about 800 phone calls a week for GOP candidates from the central North Carolina town of Salisbury. A lot of undecided voters tell him "the Republicans have stopped all work in Washington," McSwain said, although he reminds them that Democrats controlled Congress for Obama's first two years.
Ten months ago, Americans were fuming over a near crisis in the economy triggered by Congress' partisan showdown over raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government operating. A Pew Research poll found that considerably more adults thought the Republican Party was "more extreme in its positions" than the Democratic Party. They saw the GOP as less ethical and less willing to work with the other party. And more Americans blamed Republican leaders for Congress' paltry list of accomplishments.
Recent polls spell out the Republican Party's challenge. A CBS-New York Times poll last month found that 49 percent of adults had a favorable view of the Democratic Party, and 36 percent unfavorable. The GOP was upside down on the question, with 43 percent viewing it favorably, and 55 percent unfavorably.
This is partly because more Americans see themselves as Democrats. The latest AP-GfK poll found that 31 percent of adults considered themselves Democrats, 22 percent Republicans and 29 percent independents. When unaffiliated voters were pressed to say which way they lean, the results were 50 percent Democrat and 37 percent Republican.
The Democratic Party's favorable ratings are nothing to brag about. But party identification is less important to Obama, who has a four-year record for voters to judge. Romney, being less well known, must rely at least in part on the "Republican brand."
"The Republican brand name is in terrible shape, and people are not naturally sympathetic to the Republicans in Congress," Fox News commentator Brit Hume said in June.
Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer, speaking in February of the rambunctious GOP primary, said, "This process has certainly hurt all the Republican candidates, and diminished the brand, unfortunately."
Romney's hopes may rest, at least somewhat, on distancing himself from the brand's less popular parts, while sacrificing as little fundraising and enthusiasm from the base as possible. The less popular parts, in some voters' eyes, include the uncompromising stand that many tea party-leaning Republicans have taken in Congress, especially on tax and spending issues.
In recent days, Romney has said he does not want to reduce the overall tax burden for high-income families, even though he still calls for a 20 percent cut in all federal income tax rates. He says changes in tax deductions would keep Americans' overall tax burden about the same. But he has not detailed how he can accomplish both goals.
Polls show significant support for Obama's call to increase taxes on households making more than $250,000 a year.
Romney's new emphasis on a no-net-decrease tax policy puts him at odds with many congressional Republicans, who say tax cuts for high earners will spur job growth.
The move delights GOP commentators such as David Brooks. During the presidential primaries, "the GOP did its best to appear unattractive," Brooks wrote last week in The New York Times. In Wednesday's debate with Obama, he wrote: "Romney did something no other mainstream Republican has had the guts to do. Either out of conviction or political desperation, he broke with tea party orthodoxy and began to redefine the Republican identity."
With the Nov. 6 election nearing, it's unclear what effect Romney's efforts will have.
Brian Nick, a Republican consultant based in Charlotte, said neither party "has a good brand right now," because Washington's constant partisan quarreling has given politics in general a bad name. He said, however, that Democrats have sometimes benefitted in competitive states by painting all Republicans as being more interested in party purity than in solving problems.
"Democrats do use the tea party label to attack Republicans and try to tie them to a strict orthodoxy," Nick said.
Further hurting the Republican brand is the status of each party's most recent former president. Only one-fourth of Americans had a favorable view of Bush when his presidency ended, according to Gallup. His standing has improved somewhat since then, but he lags far behind former President Bill Clinton. A recent Bloomberg News poll found that nearly 2 in 3 Americans favorably view the former Democratic president.
Ron Thomas, 26, is an independent voter with a fairly dim view of the national Republican Party.
"Who will help the working man more? It's definitely Barack," said Thomas, who works for a rental car company in Charlotte.
Thomas, who endured a chilly drizzle this week to discuss politics, has few problems with Republicans at the state level. In fact, he supports Republican Pat McCrory in the governor's race, saying the former Charlotte mayor is good on urban issues.
But Thomas said Romney turned him off with his claim that the 47 percent of Americans who don't owe federal income taxes will not take responsibility for their lives.
"I'm part of that 47 percent," Thomas said. "I have a college degree, and I work two jobs," he said, but it's still a struggle.