Is Mitt Romney the tortoise which finally passes the hare, or simply a tortoise?

With just over two months to go until the United States election, the Republican candidate's plodding campaign keeps threatening to lunge forward without actually doing so.

The election has been static for four months, most national poll surveys giving Democrat Barack Obama a slight lead. Gallup's national polling tracking graph has resembled a flatline with little variation since May.

Romney has, so far, been an average campaign candidate and is heading for a lower grading in the history books next to the likes of John Kerry, Bob Dole, John McCain and Michael Dukakis unless something ruptures the pattern.


As a tall, wealthy patrician with the requisite squared jaw, Romney certainly looks credible as a presidential pretender, but he performs on stage with all the fluidity of a manikin slipping inside its owner's suit.

Obama won the early months of the campaign.

Showing nifty footwork not always apparent during governing, the Democrat nipped and harried Romney over his business record, his wealth, his tax returns, his gaffes, his running-mate, Republican fringe views on abortion - throwing whatever grenades came to hand.

Only in the area of fundraising has Romney out-performed the President. He has a huge arsenal to employ in the final weeks and it's the uncertainty that gunpowder brings which should make anyone pause over predictions. Romney saw off two challengers during the primary season - Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum - with heavy barrages of negative attack ads.

And no one knows what could happen in the upcoming debates.

Both men have had plenty of practice and Romney will certainly appear presidential next to Obama - more so than Senator John McCain did in 2008. Romney is more than slightly gaffe-prone but his opponent is not immune to the occasional regrettable remark. The danger for Romney is that Obama's ease and likeability could sparkle in the close comparison.

The debates are one of three set-piece events candidates use to try to achieve poll bounces and momentum, the others being the announcement of a running-mate and the nominating convention.

But Paul Ryan's addition to the Republican ticket has hardly shaken the tree and last week's convention - sliced short by Hurricane Isaac and likely to be remembered for Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair - is not going to provide much of a boost. There is simply no time for Romney to blink in the media lights as the glare shifts to the Democrat convention this week. Reuters' tracking poll yesterday had Obama a point ahead.

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Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said it's best to campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but for Romney there is only prose. Even so, his nomination speech on Friday did have some lines that were effective in a basic way.

"Hope and change had a powerful appeal. But ... if you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's President Obama? You know, there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him."

Romney's pretence that he wanted Obama to succeed as president only to feel disappointed - from a man who ran for president four years ago - was a naked attempt to connect with wavering independents. "I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. Today the time has come for us to put the disappointments of the last four years behind us."

The speech confirmed Romney is essentially a businessman rather than a politician - coming as it did after a warm-up address by Senator Marco Rubio, the Republicans' real answer to Obama. Like the President, Rubio is a wordsmith with a bit of charm, inspiration and soul. If there was a future president in the house on Friday, there's a good chance it was Rubio rather than Romney.

Romney and Obama may both be former lawyers, but the Republican's unnatural awkwardness hands his opponent a huge advantage on all things related to an ability to relate.

There's a basic problem there when so much of the focus on the Republican convention was on whether the party would be able to "humanise" Romney to voters. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week when people were asked who was the "more friendly and likeable person", the verdict for Obama was a stark 64 per cent to Romney's 25 per cent.

The Democrats are well aware of Obama's advantage as the "guy you'd rather have a beer with". He's constantly being photographed talking to ordinary Joes on the trail with beer in hand - no doubt in part because Romney, as a Mormon, cannot do likewise.

The Republican convention with its testimonials to Romney's niceness may have helped reduce the gap, at least temporarily.

And the Republicans are betting and hoping this is one election where such considerations will count for far less than they usually do - that the key issue of the day matters more than the man.

Usually the more likeable candidate wins. Usually incumbency is very hard to overcome. But usually an unemployment rating of about 8 per cent for nearly four years would doom an incumbent. And for all that polls show Obama is preferred as a person, his job approval rating is only hovering around 50 per cent. The election is tight.

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It all hangs on whether the Republicans are in tune with voters when they pitch that the economy is so broken, that Obama has failed so badly, that the situation is so irreparable, a successful businessman and CEO is required in the Oval Office.

As Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia tweeted on Friday: "Only ONE way for Romney-Ryan to get elected: To be hired as the Mr Fixit ticket. Fix economy, jobs, budget, deficit".

Romney's business reputation and organisational skill is essentially his only potential winning hand.

The fact that the Democrats fear such a scenario is reflected in the ferocity with which they attacked Romney's business credentials. They outspent the Republicans on advertising in a determined effort to imprint their own take on Romney's past and character in the minds of voters. If it happens early enough - while the candidate is largely unknown - the prevalent story of a candidate can be the one that takes hold. The fact that the Republicans had to devote so much time last week to explaining Romney rather than explaining plans for the economy was a victory of sorts for his opponents.

This week at their own convention, the Democrats will be pushing a different narrative on the Obama years and the election. It will be 'we didn't ask for this, yes it's been hard, but there have been some successes and we need more time. Things are improving. Now is not the time to bail out'.

Which position - Republican or Democrat - is closer to the majority view of voters?

The polling evidence on that is mixed. Rather like Kerry with the Iraq War in 2004, Romney has struggled to make the economic issue hum for him as it logically should.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll last week gave Romney leads on who would better handle the economy (46 per cent to 44 per cent) and deal with the deficit (48 to 39). Obama was ahead on understanding people's economic problems (49 to 37), supporting small business (49 to 42), energy policy (49 to 37) and taxes (46 to 44).

When asked who was responsible for the country's economic problems, 54 per cent said former President George W. Bush and 32 per cent said Obama. When asked how confident they were the country would get back on track economically in the next year or two depending on who was elected, Obama and Romney's scores were almost identical. Obama (43 per cent confident, 56 per cent not confident) Romney (43 to 55).

The data shows a varied response to the economic situation rather than a strong "Obama cops it all" attitude.

But there are opportunities for both candidates to firmly gain the upper hand - perhaps through clearly outlining in detail economic plans for the next four years.

Obama leads on social issues, education, health, women's issues and international affairs. He also maintains the demographic advantages he had in 2008 with blacks, Hispanics and women. Romney is favoured by men.

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Gallup says that Americans' expectation Obama will win - currently 58 per cent to 36 per cent - has been virtually unchanged since May (56-36).

After a heavy period of Republican news - the naming of a running-mate, the convention - yesterday had Obama leading Romney in national poll averages by 46.4 per cent to 46.1 per cent.

But the election is awarded by Electoral College votes - with some states worth more according to population - and Obama leads there in RCP's forecast by 221 to 191 with toss up states 126. When the toss-ups are included, the tally is Obama 332 to Romney's 206.

RCP's Intrade Odds - what people think and bet will happen - have the President ahead by a comfortable 57.7 per cent to 42.1 per cent.

The only polls that matter are in the crucial swing states.

On current RCP data, Obama will take the overwhelming majority': Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin, Colorado and Iowa. The only ones in Romney's column are North Carolina and Missouri. But Obama's margins are currently tight.

FiveThirtyEight Forecast has Obama leading by 50.9 per cent to 47.9 per cent in the popular vote.

It gives Obama a 73.1 per cent to 26.9 per cent chance of winning. Based on state polling data, it believes Obama will gain 305.5 in the Electoral College to Romney's 232.5.

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver says: "Our forecast model will treat it as a favourable sign for Mr Romney if his convention bounce is larger than four percentage points, and an unfavourable sign if it is under that threshold."

This week's Democratic convention, performances in next month's debates, the influence of money and negative advertising and above all economic conditions will help determine whether Obama maintains his slim lead or gets overtaken at the end.

Nicola Lamb is the Herald's foreign editor.