With just five weeks before the presidential election, Republican strategists say Mitt Romney must quickly make his economic case against President Obama or else face defeat.
But party insiders are not confident he can do it, fearing he will continue to chase distractions rather than staying on message.
“What he is doing is not working, obviously,” said Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who was national director of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. “There’s nothing that says, ‘I am really committed to X,Y and Z.’ There is no ‘hope and change’ type of big message.”
A similar alarm was sounded by Bill Lacy, another Reagan campaign veteran who now serves as director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
“Even if we don’t believe all the polls, what concerns me about his campaign is that he has not had the initiative since the [Republican] convention. He cannot continue to flounder around.”
The dissent in Republican circles underscores the uncertainty about whether Romney can find a pathway out of his current predicament before time runs out on Nov. 6.
Opinion polls show the former Massachusetts governor trailing Obama by a small but significant margin nationwide. The state of play in the battleground states is, if anything, even bleaker for the challenger.
Romney’s best shot at a winning argument is relatively simple, his supporters say. The GOP’s case: Obama misunderstands the economy because he believes in the primacy of government action, whereas Romney believes in the private sector and knows how to liberate it, thus leading America back to prosperity.
“President Obama’s solutions have all been driven by government; I will propose solutions that are small-business- and private-sector-driven,” Republican consultant Dan Judy said, when asked what Romney’s most effective case would be.
“The specific argument is that the president hasn’t leveled with the American people about how bad the economy is,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College who served as a volunteer on the elder President Bush’s 1988 campaign.
“There are a number of ways you can phrase it: ‘American workers and employers haven’t failed; the government has failed them.’ ”
The Romney campaign would argue it has already sought to make this case.
Yet many others — including some who are simpatico with Romney’s worldview — say that the Republican nominee’s approach has been too scattershot.
Of late, attacks on Obama for being timorous on trade with China, too ready to cut the defense budget, insufficiently supportive of Israel and antagonistic to coal miners have all been part of Romney’s messaging mix, sometimes all within a 48-hour period.
Even longtime GOP hands like Rollins and Lacy offer dramatically different prescriptions for the same ailment. One of Lacy’s suggestions was for Romney to talk more about his record at Bain Capital in a positive light.
“I would get away from a 10-year-old resume,” he said. “Everybody knows he made a lot of money. Nobody knows how and why, and they don’t care.”
The Romney campaign pushes back hard against the broad-stroke criticisms. His aides argue the situation is not nearly so dire as some in the media — and the most anxious Republican supporters — suggest.
Senior Romney campaign adviser Russ Schriefer pointed to polling from the Rasmussen organization that shows the race tighter than most other surveys indicate.
“Over the next five weeks, it is still a president running for reelection with an economy that is stagnant at best and a foreign policy that is unraveling,” Schriefer told The Hill. “That’s the choice.”
What is missing, critics say, is a campaign and a candidate that can bind the loose ends together.
“You can attack simultaneously on a number of fronts,” Judy said, “but the key is to make sure all those things tie together in one coherent line of argument.
“So you take the economic argument. You then turn to ObamaCare and you say, ‘This is bad policy, it’s another example of the Obama administration trying to impose a government solution when the private sector would do a better job,’ ” Judy added.
“The same thing on energy policy: ‘There should be more drilling, more fracking, but what the Obama administration wants is to send money to the Solyndras.’ ”
The series of presidential debates that begins Wednesday offers an opportunity for Romney. Traditionally, the debates have often favored a challenger.
In 2004, for example, Sen. John KerryJohn KerryCongress must press Qatar for highlighting hate preacher Egypt’s death squads and America's deafening silence With help from US, transformative change in Iran is within reach MORE (D-Mass.) went into the first debate facing an approximately 6-point deficit in the Real Clear Politics national polling average against President George W. Bush.
Less than a week after the first debate, which Kerry was widely perceived to have won, the gap was less than 2 percentage points.
A similar boost for Romney this year would return the race to de facto dead-heat status.
(At the weekend, Obama’s lead over Romney in the Real Clear Politics average was 4.3 percentage points.)
But there was disagreement among many strategists about the best approach for Romney in the debates — and in other areas.
One suggestion: Romney should hit Obama as hard as possible in Wednesday’s televised debate, because he needs to land a knockout blow. Or, he should ignore Obama, and instead focus only on his own message, because voters are hungry for specifics from him.
More advice: Romney should peddle soft-focus biographical details because he has to show himself as a more compassionate, warm man than the plutocrat caricature Team Obama has pushed.
Or, the battle of likability is already lost, and its electoral importance is overrated anyway, so he should confine himself to policy.
The Beltway wisdom is even divided over just how grave Romney’s situation has become.
Several interviewees reached unprompted for football metaphors.
For some, Romney is down by two touchdowns with only a few minutes left. For others, a measly field goal separates him and Obama, and it’s far too early to start throwing Hail Mary passes.
“It’s not too late at all,” said Ron Bonjean, a prominent Washington-based GOP consultant. “Independents could swing massively in Romney’s favor, so long as he takes a proactive approach.”
“He has time,” Bill Lacy half-agreed. “But not a lot of time.”
Justin Sink contributed to this report.