Haley Barbour: Debates alone won't decide election

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Barbour pointed out that over the summer "the Obama people spent a whole lot more money to try to define and disqualify Romney than the Romney people to introduce Romney."

"If the election stays about process, polling, focus ground, campaign management, that's all to Obama's favor," he continued. But Barbour added that if Romney could return focus to the economy he could still defeat the president.

The former governor and Republican National Committee chairman, one of the most powerful figures in the GOP establishment, made the remarks on a conference call with the center-right outside research group Resurgent Republic. The group has conducted a series of focus groups with swing voters who backed Obama last election — and their latest conclusions are that Romney is struggling to peel away key constituencies necessary to victory, specifically blue-collar voters and suburban women who backed Obama last time but are up for grabs this election.

"The chief problem facing Republicans is [swing voters] believe the president inherited a fiscal mess and needs more time to turn it around," top GOP pollster Linda DiVall, who conducted focus groups with suburban women in Richmond, said on the call.

DiVall said Romney's campaign started off on the right note with ads defining what he'd do on his first day in office but had moved on too quickly from that message and allowed Obama to define him. 

"It's almost as if in this environment he could have repeated those ads and done himself some good," she said.

According to DiVall, Romney has to use the debates to show middle-class Americans that he has "a connection to what these voters have gone through the last four years," claiming that the GOP candidate is facing less a likeability gap and more concern from these voters that he doesn't understand their economic challenges.

"The challenge for Gov. Romney is to relate to people personally and provide some inspiration that their quality of life will improve," she said, calling for a "more distinct plan" on the economy.

"There is indeed an opportunity for Gov. Romney to hit the reset button but the challenge is these swing women want to hear more details of his economic plan," she continued.

Ed Goeas, who conducted focus groups with blue-collar men and women in Ohio, said that many of them said they felt they were slipping out of the middle class but also were less than willing to blame Obama.

But Goeas warned that while male blue-collar voters were still open to Romney, females had begun to harden against him, saying there was "much less potential with the women" in his focus groups to convince them to vote for Romney.