* Under pressure to move the needle
* Campaign seeks to reassure Republicans
* Playing Obama, Portman throws zingers
* Romney narrows gap in Reuters/Ipsos poll
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Under pressure to regain his balance in the race for the White House, Mitt Romney is going through intense preparation for the first presidential debate next week while his campaign appeals to fellow Republicans to keep faith with their candidate.
Romney has appeared to have stopped the stumbling by having a relatively mistake-free week of campaigning after recent troubles that allowed President Barack Obama to build a lead in polls with less than 40 days left until the Nov. 6 election.
But Romney has to find a way to move the needle back in his direction before the race slips away. Romney forces are trying to reassure party leaders that the campaign is not over.
Campaign manager Matt Rhoades was in Washington this week and met privately with a high-profile group of party leaders to calm any fears and lay out the campaign’s plans, Republican sources said.
“He met with some veteran Republicans to explain the campaign’s plans for the next couple of weeks which did reassure people,” said a source familiar with the session.
The Republican’s campaign has been struggling to come back from a bad period marked by the disclosure of a secretly videotaped fund-raising speech in which Romney said 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government.
“Romney is lucky to be where he is given that we had two terrible weeks on defense and not talking about jobs,” said an informal Romney adviser.
His problems have unleashed doubts among conservatives that he had managed to hold in check for months. Many on the right had wanted anybody but Romney to win the party’s nomination, but he outlasted a host of challengers.
Now, the critics are back.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post on Friday that Romney needs to “go big,” accusing him of playing it too safe.
He cited in particular a speech Romney gave in New York on the inoffensive topic of reforming foreign aid, instead of ripping into Obama for allowing the Arab Spring to create an increase in anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East.
“It makes you think how far ahead Romney would be if he were actually running a campaign,” wrote Krauthammer. “His unwillingness to go big, to go for the larger argument, is simply astonishing.”
Romney’s wife Ann again called on Republican critics to hold their tongue. “Everyone has an opinion,” she told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren.
“We’re trying everything we can. We know it’s difficult out there on the campaign trail. And folks should know that Mitt is putting every ounce of energy into it,” she said.
The former Massachusetts governor received some good news on Friday when a Reuters/Ipsos daily online poll showed him narrowing the gap with Obama to five percentage points. The Democrat, who had led on Thursday by seven points, is now ahead by 47-42 percent.
Much of the Romney campaign’s plans to recover his footing center around the first of three presidential debates that takes place on Wednesday in Denver and is devoted to the tepid U.S. economy, Romney’s main campaign theme.
Ohio Republican U.S. Senator Rob Portman, playing Obama in mock debate sessions, has adapted to the role of Romney’s adversary, unleashing difficult questions aimed at testing Romney’s ability to control his emotions.
“He keeps on beating me up,” Romney told supporters this week in Ohio. “And I just go away shaking my head.”
The low-key Portman, who had been on Romney’s vice presidential short list when Romney chose Congressman Paul Ryan instead, has been a tough customer in the mock debate.
The sessions have typically been moderated by longtime Romney confidant Peter Flaherty. Portman’s goal is to make sure Romney is never surprised, so he has been tougher than perhaps Obama himself may be.
“Portman does not show up unprepared. He has gone in there really looking to throw it at him. At the same time, he wants to be constructive,” said a Republican close to the campaign.
Expecting Obama to get personal with attacks on Romney’s wealth, the mock sessions have covered how Romney should handle such criticism.
The preparation has also included how to make sure Romney does not come across as scolding and how he should avoid complaining about the debate rules, something he did several times during the 20 debates he held with Republican opponents in the party’s presidential primary battle.
Romney advisers are scrambling to lower expectations for their candidate, saying this will be Obama’s eighth one-on-one debate going back to the 2008 campaign.
“President Obama is a very gifted speaker with substantial debate experience,” said Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom.
Romney raised money and slammed Obama’s Middle East policy on Friday in a rare campaign appearance in Pennsylvania, a former swing state that he admitted was now difficult for him to win.
“We really would shock people if early in the evening of November 6, it looked like Pennsylvania was going to come our way,” Romney told a meeting of donors.