By Russell Berman, Erik Wasson and Bernie Becker - 08/03/12 10:00 AM EDT
House Republicans are heading home bullish about Mitt Romney’s prospects in the presidential election despite his recent struggles and polls that show President Obama holding the lead.
In more than a dozen interviews on Thursday, Republican lawmakers acknowledged that the election was closer than they’d like, but they voiced confidence in the direction of Romney’s campaign and downplayed a run of damaging headlines. The persistently weak economy, they argued, would ultimately turn the election in Romney’s favor.
“To be tied before he is even nominated against a sitting president is pretty strong," Rogers said.
GOP confidence in Romney is reflected in their recent strategy on taxes and spending, which hinges on a Romney presidency.
Before leaving for a five-week August recess, Republicans approved a six-month stopgap government funding measure that kicks a fight over federal spending into 2013 — when Republicans hope Romney will take over the Oval Office.
And on Thursday the House passed legislation that sets up an expedited process for comprehensive tax reform — but again, in 2013, when the GOP hopes a Republican president will lead that effort.
Republicans acknowledge their hopes depend on November.
“We won't be able to do what we want to accomplish if Barack Obama is in the White House,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
Yet despite an economic recovery that has hit the summertime skids for a third straight year, Obama retains a slim lead in most national polls. And more worrisome for Republicans, the gap in Obama’s favor is wider in key swing states like Ohio. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week gave the president a 6-point edge in both Ohio and Florida and a 9-point lead in Pennsylvania.
Romney’s recent trip abroad, aimed a bolstering his image as a potential commander in chief, garnered as much attention for the candidate’s missteps as for his foreign-policy credentials.
Congressional Republicans preached patience, however, and said that despite Romney’s shortcomings as a candidate, a failed economic record would be Obama’s undoing.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it is too soon to worry about Romney’s standing.
“I think this election could well be like 1980, when Jimmy Carter was unpopular because of the economy,” Cornyn said. “But Ronald Reagan hadn’t yet presented himself as a credible alternative. Once he did, then the numbers really started moving.”
Lawmakers cited a range of reasons in arguing that Romney was in a better position than polls and press coverage indicate. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) said the Obama campaign was enjoying a spending advantage now because Romney is limited to spending only primary campaign contributions — and not general-election funds — until after the Republican National Convention at the end of the month.
“I really think once Romney starts spending competitively on television that you’re going to see it tighten up and you’re going to see Romney surpass Obama in most of those battleground states,” Chabot said.
Reps. Billy Long (Mo.) and Steven LaTourette (Ohio) claimed that surveys taken before Labor Day often reflect the views of a wider pool of registered voters rather than people who are most likely to turn out on Election Day. The result are polls that do not accurately reflect an enthusiasm gap that favors Republicans.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) predicted undecided voters would tilt to Romney because of Obama’s handling of the economy.
As that tiny sliver of the population makes its decision, he says they will notice that on nearly every metric — Chaffetz mentioned housing and gas prices as examples — things have worsened under Obama.
“You come up with an equation that’s very difficult for the president to overcome,” he said at a Thursday event in Washington sponsored by The Hill.
Chaffetz took solace in Obama’s approval ratings, which have generally hung in the high 40s. To Chaffetz, that suggests a president who has peaked — and provides room for Romney.
The Utah Republican asserted that Republican voters are more enthusiastic this year than Democrats, though he said they are enthusiastic about getting rid of Obama, not electing Romney.
“And I think the Republican base is more fired up than the Democratic base. There is an enthusiasm gap,” he said. “And quite honestly I think it’s more about beating Barack Obama for Republicans even more so than anything else.”
Republicans also had some advice for Romney. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) said he would like to see Romney be “more direct and more charismatic” on the stump — and play offense, instead of being forced on the defensive on issues such as his tax returns.
“We are not focusing on his administration at all,” Ross said about Obama. “He’s not running on his record. We should force him to run on his record. And I think, again, that would be a tactic that I would like to see Romney take.”
Some Republicans believe that Romney's refusal to release more of his tax returns will hurt his chances for the presidency.
"I don't think this will go away," Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said. "And if we're still talking about this in September, he's in deep trouble."
Meanwhile, swing-state Democrats — while welcoming the poll numbers giving Obama an edge — aren't taking anything for granted.
Rep. Robert "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) said it's "more fun to be up than down," but Democrats will still focus their August recess on voter organization, registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts.
"We're confident — we won last time and we expect to be able to do it again," Scott said of his home state. "But it's gonna be close, it's going to take a lot of hard work."
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) delivered a similar message, saying it's "critical" that Obama is polling well heading into the conventions, but that no Democrats are popping any champagne.
"It's a good feeling," Hastings said, "but the election is still extremely close."
—Ian Swanson, Mike Lillis, Molly K. Hooper and Bob Cusack contributed.