(CBS News) The 2012 presidential campaign has had no shortage of surprise shifts, but regardless of the moment, gaffe, or intervening factor at play, there has emerged an unmistakably consistent GOP theme: This election, Republicans say, is about the economy.
Whether or not that's true - and most polls indicate that, at the very least, many voters prioritize jobs and/or the economy as their number one issue - there's little question why Republicans, and Mitt Romney's supporters, would make this argument. After all, the Republican presidential candidate has frequently outpolled President Obama on the issue.
A handful of new surveys, however, suggest that Romney's losing his edge on questions about the economy - a potentially troubling sign for a campaign that has recently been dogged by controversy.
"The entire campaign rests on him persuading voters that he has a better answer for the economy than Barack Obama," said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist and pollster. "He's got to paint a compelling vision of an economic future."
Parsing the polls
In the weeks since the Democratic National Convention, a number of polls have shown the president closing in on Romney on questions about who would better handle the economy.
A new poll from NBC News/Wall Street Journal shows that between July and September, Mr. Obama's standing among registered voters has jumped 6 points - from 37 percent to 43 percent - on the question of whether he or Romney would do better at dealing with the economy, while Romney is steady at 43 percent. Similarly, a CNN/ORC Poll conducted among likely voters between Sept. 7-9 shows Mr. Obama with a 1-point advantage over Romney on the economy, with 50 percent to Romney's 49 percent. The week before, however, the same poll showed Romney leading Mr. Obama on the question 51-45. The week before that, Romney led the president 50-46. Among registered voters questioned about the economy in the same poll, Mr. Obama climbed two points between late June and September, from 47 percent to 49 percent. Romney, meanwhile, clocked in at 48 percent in late June and again in the September poll.
A Fox News poll released September 12 shows a similar upward trend for the president: In June, 46 percent of registered voters chose Romney when asked which candidate would do a better job handling the economy, while 39 percent chose Mr. Obama. As of September, Mr. Obama was even with Romney, at 45 percent, on the question of who would do a better job of creating jobs and improving the economy.
In three newof battleground states, where ad spending is likely to be much heavier and voters more closely targeted than in solidly blue or red states, similar patterns appear to be emerging. In Colorado, Virginia, and Wisconsin, Mr. Obama has seen some degree of improvement on the question of who would do a better job on the economy, but Romney has not seen similar gains. In Colorado, he has essentially closed a 10-point gap in the space of a month: In August, Romney led him on the issue 51 percent to 41 percent; in September, he trailed Romney by just one point, with 47 percent to Romney's 48 percent. In Wisconsin, the president jumped from 43 percent in August to 49 percent in September, while Romney dropped from 49 percent in August to 46 percent in September. In Virginia, Romney held steady with 47 percent in both August and September. Mr. Obama, however, had an uptick of 4 points, from 45 percent to 49 percent.
Likewise, a Wednesday poll out of Virginia shows Mr. Obama leading Romney 47 percent to 45 percent among registered voters on a question about which candidate would do a better job on the economy. And in new Fox News polls surveying three battleground states -- Florida, Ohio, and Virginia -- more likely voters say they trust the president than Romney to improve the economy. Whether or not these figures mark an improvement for Mr. Obama is unclear, however, since none of the polls provides previous data on the question.
"Our battleground state polls show that there has been a shift in President Obama's favor on handling the economy in all three states, most notably in Colorado," said Sarah Dutton, CBS News' Director of Surveys.
Still, Dutton emphasized that it remains to be seen whether or not the recent polling numbers hold steady. "It's still too early to say whether this represents a long term trend for the president, or whether it's a temporary blip upward," she said. "We'll have to see what polls show in the next few weeks."
A short-term bounce?
While it's possible that voters are generally more optimistic about the state of the economy - which was true in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll - it's also conceivable that the president is benefiting from a temporary across-the-board bounce following the Democratic convention.
The Romney campaign argues that any uptick in the president's economic polling numbers is a result of a post-Charlotte boost among the base -- and that Mr. Obama has done nothing to change the way voters look at the economy overall.
"This is just Democrats coming back to Obama -- running up the score in places like Cali, NY/NJ, IL," a Romney campaign official told CBSNews.com in an email. "Besides that having no effect on the election (not swing states), there's been absolutely nothing that President Obama has done on the economy to change the dynamic. If anything, the continuous bad news -- food stamps record, unemployment numbers, debt -- that has trickled out since their convention will begin to blunt their enthusiasm."
"There was a small bounce, clearly," said Ayres, who said that naturally, an across-the-board bounce would lead to a "narrowing of the Romney advantage" on the economy. But he argues that there is still a significant opening for Romney on the issue.
"Mitt Romney's challenge is to consolidate the people who disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy. That's the strategy in a nutshell. Those people are prepared to try something else," he said. "He needs to paint a compelling alternative vision for how government would act differently in a way that would encourage rather than discourage job creation in the private sector" under a Romney presidency.
In the last several weeks, however, as Romney has been drawn into controversial debates over domestic and foreign policy issues, the candidate has had fewer opportunities to make his economic case on a large scale.
"There have been a lot of distractions," said Doug Holtz-Eakin, chief economic policy adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "Conventions come and go, and international affairs have dominated recently."
But, he says, the economy is at "the core" of Romney's campaign. "He needs to get back to that."
"Any time you're running a national campaign, you're not fully in control of all the elements of the story that's developing around you," said Terry Holt, a Republican strategist who served on George W. Bush's campaign in 2000 and 2004. "The campaign has to stay focused. It has to very clearly and distinctly talk about Obama's record and make this an election where there is a clear choice between two distinct paths."
"If we're not talking about that we're not making any progress," he said.
One Republican strategist pointed out that the selection of Paul Ryan as Romney's running mate served as another opportunity for distraction.
"The choice of Ryan might have been brilliant for solidifying the Republican base, but it also introduced a conversation about Medicare and entitlements that we didn't need to have during this election," the strategist said. "So that made for a good two to three weeks where we were fighting a battle that was not on our turf. We need to shift the battlefield back to Republican strength: Debt and taxes and economic growth and policies that promote competitiveness for American businesses."
"We have not been talking about that and so we have been losing ground," the strategist added.
Another recent controversy threatens to further derail the Romney campaign's efforts to return the conversation to the economy: On Monday, the liberal magazine Mother Jones unearthed a secretly taped video in which Romney can be seen at a private fundraiser describing the majority of Mr. Obama's supporters as people who are "dependent on government" and "believe that they are victims." Romney has been forced to answer criticisms over the comments from both the left and the right - distracting from the campaign's efforts to gain traction by .
The path forward
Regardless of the recent interferences, Republicans are confident that Romney can regain the upper hand on questions about the economy - if it's even true he's lost it.
John Geer, a professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in polling and campaign advertising, says Romney needs to make a broad - and specific - case for his economic leadership.
"People want jobs, sure, but they want to know that Romney is going to be a better steward of the economy, and that requires a broad message," Geer said. "The problem is that all he's promising doesn't add up... Now he needs to start filling that void."
Even when external events intervene, Holtz-Eakin says, Romney should be hammering home his economic arguments on the campaign trail.
"He certainly has an obvious interest and obligation to respond to international events as they occur, but with his campaign events and the vast artillery of modern campaigns and communications, you don't have to leave [economic issues] out" of the conversation," he said.
"We need to be making sharp, clear, and distinct contrasts between what Barack Obama's record, and how Mitt Romney would take the country on a more positive course," added Holt. "The campaign is attempting to do that and they've just got to keep at it and stay focused."
"I'm hopeful," said Ayres. "The door is open. Romney just needs to walk through it."