YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Mitt Romney stood in an industrial manufacturing plant attacking President Barack Obama.
"He's a nice guy, but he's in over his head," Romney said. "We need to have a president who understands the economy if we're going to fix the economy."
The campaign arranged for plant employees to sit behind Romney, stagecraft that would play well on TV a day before Ohio's crucial Republican presidential primary this month. But the workers provided a different script.
"Times were tough around here," 35-year-old Chris Marrone said in an interview. "Everybody was nervous, but we're starting to see orders coming in."
A slow but measurable economic comeback — from lower unemployment to a soaring stock market, higher auto sales and daily improvement in battered areas like Youngstown — is complicating the Republican game plan.
Unemployment, still dangerously high at 8.3 percent, and the economy remain voters' top concerns and Obama's chief re-election obstacle, but the issue is less of a wedge.
"It's a jump ball," said Republican economist Doug Holtz-Eakin.
As the GOP candidates campaign across key swing states, their gloom clashes with upbeat assessments from Republican governors, such as Ohio's John Kasich and Florida's Rick Scott, who tout job growth and falling unemployment.
The mixed signals have forced candidates to tweak their message. "You know, the economy may be getting better and Republicans may lose their edge on that issue," Rick Santorum, Romney's top rival, told Missouri voters recently.
Santorum, among others, is shifting his focus to similarities between the health care plan Romney ushered in as governor of Massachusetts and the national program adopted under Obama.
"Obamacare should be the No. 1 issue in the campaign. I think it's the gift that keeps giving," Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the Weekly Standard.
Romney, who has been dragged into emotional arguments over birth control and immigration as he strains to win over conservatives, has tried to refocus his message.
"We are going to campaign on the economy. After any recession, the country rebounds," spokesman Ryan Williams said, asserting Obama's policies have prolonged the hardship.
He said Santorum's position is evidence he's an "economic lightweight" and disagreed that Romney's message clashed with the governors. "We obviously think more could have been done on the federal level to promote our economic recovery."
Even so, three consecutive months of strong job growth, including 227,000 added in February, have taken some bite out of Romney's message. He's adjusted by emphasizing the millions still looking for work, including veterans, and higher gas prices, which Newt Gingrich has made the exclusive focus of his fading campaign.
Gasoline has reached $4 a gallon in parts of the country and the pain is expected to persist. Obama has launched an aggressive effort to ascribe the spike to factors out of his hands, such as turmoil in the Middle East, a hard sell even if experts agree.
"Right now a lot of Americans are expecting the economy to get better and that helps the president," said Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008. "But when they go to the gas pump and see where it is, that makes it more difficult."
Despite higher fuel costs, retail spending increased in February by 1.1 percent, the biggest gain since September. But Obama's chastened reaction shows the degree of worry that gas prices could have on his re-election.
Polls have been volatile — a New York Times/CBS News poll last week showed his approval rating at 41 percent while a National Journal survey put it at 51 percent. But the National Journal poll showed that 60 percent of Americans anticipate improvement over the coming year, up from 50 percent in October.
The president faces a delicate task of not seeming too confident yet trying to take credit for the improvements. He tried to walk the line during a March 9 speech at a manufacturing facility in Petersburg, Va., acknowledging that Americans are still hurting while expressing confidence the rebound will continue.
"Our job now is to keep this economic engine churning," Obama said. "We can't go back to the same policies that got us into this mess. We can't go back to an economy that was weakened by outsourcing and bad debt and phony financial profits."
Obama made a similar argument in the 2010 midterm elections, but it fell flat against tea-party-fueled anger about rising spending and debt. Republicans swept those elections and took control of the House, crippling the Democratic agenda.
This time, though, Obama has distinct signs of recovery. His campaign on Thursday released a documentary-style, 17-minute film tracing the steps to shore up the economy.
"Obviously if the economy improves it puts people in a better mood and they are more likely to vote for the incumbent," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington.
He said Romney can still turn it into a question of who is better qualified to lead on the economy. Romney says his many years as a businessman give him a perspective that Obama lacks.
Romney has to balance, too. "He has to be careful he's not seen as trying to talk down the economy," Feehery said.
In Youngstown, Romney gave a mostly downbeat assessment, talking about stagnant wages, higher gas prices and budget deficits. "I want to get America strong again, and I will do it with your help," Romney said, casting Obama as "out of ideas."
The first question from the audience came from a woman who worked at a Delphi plant that supplied parts for GM. As part of the auto bailout, she said, her pension benefits were slashed. Romney accused Obama of "crony capitalism" and propping up auto union workers. But the hard lines did not elicit much reaction. The nearby GM plant, which makes the Chevrolet Cruze, is thriving after the bailout that Romney opposed.
"I understand the concept of being against it, but it helped us," said Mollie Dennison, 51, a Democrat who showed up to the rally and said she was considering voting for Romney because jobs overall are still scarce.
Erica Wentz-Jones, another Democrat who showed up to hear what Romney had to say but supports Obama, said she worried Romney's message would win the day.
"I don't know if the American voter is all that well educated," she said. "I'm concerned they have a very short memory, they may not know the cause of the economic downturn and because President Obama didn't fix it in the blink of an eye, that it's all his fault."
But Marrone, the plant employee who sat in the audience, thinks the signs of a comeback will buoy the president. "I think (voters) will be afraid to make decisions that would change the way things are going."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]