US Republican challenger Mitt Romney looks set to use Wednesday's debate against President Barack Obama to revive his struggling presidential campaign, seeking not only to win over undecided voters but also to fire up Republicans who have begun questioning whether he can win.
Though polls show the race remains tight ahead of the November 6 vote, Mr Obama clearly has momentum and the edge not only in national polls, but in the battleground states that will effectively decide the election. In some states, Republican candidates appearing on the ballot with Mr Romney have taken steps to establish independence from him. Party strategists predict more will follow, perhaps as soon as next week, unless Mr Romney can dispel fears that he is headed for defeat despite the weak economy that works against Mr Obama's prospects.
Recent public polls show Mr Obama moving out to a modest lead in most if not all of the battleground states where the race will be decided. But Republicans with access to Mr Romney's polling data said on Tuesday that he has begun regaining some support among independent voters, enabling him to cut into the president's advantage.
Because the presidential election is not decided by popular vote but rather by in a state-by-state contest, a handful of so-called battleground states, which do not reliably vote either Republican or Democratic, are likely to decide the race.
But it is unclear how long congressional candidates are willing to wait for a turnaround. Several Republican strategists point to this week, which includes the debate and Friday's release of September unemployment figures.
Some Republicans who are in periodic contact with the campaign say Mr Romney's strategists have concluded that a recent uptick in public optimism, coming on top of Mr Obama's success to date, complicates the attempt to defeat the president solely on the basis of pocketbook issues.
In recent days, Mr Romney has emphasised criticism of the president's foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, where a terrorist attack at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who headed the Republican Party when it won control of Congress in the 1990s, said disapprovingly over the weekend that Mr Romney's campaign has been focusing on polling, political process and campaign management. "It's about everything but the issues. It's about everything but Obama's policies and the failures of those policies," he said.
Mr Barbour, echoing what others say privately, was dismissive of the suggestion that Mr Romney should spread his campaign focus. The public is "concerned about how backwards the Middle East has gone during the last year. But they're much more concerned about their children having jobs, about them being able to pay for their health insurance, for 3.85 dollar gasoline," he said.
Privately, Republican strategists also agreed with Mr Barbour's public statement that Mr Romney's campaign has been unable so far to settle on a single, overarching theme to tie together its advertising, the rhetoric of its candidate and appearances by surrogates. Many of the Republicans who commented on the race declined to be identified by name, saying they were not authorised to speak publicly about strategy.