About 200 people turned out to see Romney on a campaign stop in Virginia Thursday. It was not a big crowd but it was a loyal one, expressing hope against hope that the Republican candidate might yet turn in a dazzling performance in the first of the presidential debates next week.
And yet, in the wake of polls on Wednesday showing Obama ahead by 10% in Ohio and 9% in Florida, there is a grim, growing recognition that hopes of the White House might be starting to slip.
"At this point, I have my fears that Obama will be back and we will see four years more of no growth," said Patrick Gallagher, 59, a former army engineer.
Having said that, he expressed a distrust of polls, based on his experience of previous elections and hoped the three debates coming up might swing independents. "The election in this state and nationwide will hinge on what happens in these debates," Gallagher said. "It is a chance to see them go head to head."
Romney's speech, at an American Legion hall in Springfield full mainly of vets, was targetted at voters either in the military or ex-military, warning that proposed Pentagon tax cuts will cost jobs and put America's security at risk.
As a piece of micro-targeting, it is clever. Republicans are strongest in the south, but to win Virginia Romney needs also to take votes in the north, and people with military links are a good bet.
But he showed little enthusiasm or passion, looking like someone weighed down by the polls and wondering how he could go on delivering speeches like this week after week all the way to November 6.
He said it was unthinkable that the government would cut military spending when the world remains "troubled and dangerous". The problem for Romney with this as an attack line is that the Republicans, including running mate Paul Ryan, voted for those very cuts.
He demonstrated yet again he is not an inspirational speaker. Even when he won an ovation when he said "when I become president", it was not long-lasting, with people just popping out of their seats and quickly sitting down again.
Mackie Christenson, 65, from Leesburg, Virgina, said she believes Romney can still win in spite of the polls. "Reagan was down 9% at this point against Carter," she said.
She is not upset that Romney has changed tack over the last few days, more positive about Obama, acknowledging he cares about America. Romney is "basically a nice person. Politics is a blood sport, and he is swimming with sharks.".
She predicted Romney will win the debate next week because he will have a chance to call out Obama on what she said were repeated lies about contraception – Republicans are not opposed to contraception, she said – the killing of ambassador Chris Stevens and other issues.
She is especially annoyed that so many women are backing Obama. "Women make up 75% of the unemployed. They are having to cope with high food prices. And yet they are for Obama because they think he is cute."
Gallagher said that Obama's poll leads might even backfire. "I think the poll leads could hurt Obama. If Obama supporters think he is going to win, they might stay at home," Gallagher said.
That is far from being a vote of confidence in Romney's chances.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Gage Skidmore