Republican strategists are increasingly distressed by the state of the presidential race and wonder if Mitt Romney is missing a golden opportunity to recapture the White House.
Such second-guessing is common when a candidate is lagging behind and seems on the defensive—and both are true with Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, He is narrowly trailing President Barack Obama in many national polls and is losing by bigger margins in some battleground states, such as Michigan and Colorado.
"There's still a lot of disquiet" in the GOP, says a top conservative strategist. "He's just running a general campaign based on Obama's poor economy. Let's face it, Romney is not a strong candidate. He could still win but he needs to do things differently." Among those second-guessing him have been conservative commentators, including William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, conservative media owner Rupert Murdoch, and veteran GOP strategists who have been instrumental in past presidential campaigns.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek summed up one of Romney's biggest problems. "He comes across as a scold and people don't like that," Dallek told me.
The critique of Romney within the GOP also is based on the concern that he has allowed Obama and the Democrats to define him as an insensitive, aloof millionaire and a predator capitalist who doesn't represent or understand everyday people.
Other complaints are that Romney is too risk-averse and, more important, that he has failed to make a compelling and detailed case about how he would improve the economy. "He's trying to make this a referendum on Obama's handling of the economy, but he needs to give us more of an idea what he would do differently," says a prominent GOP strategist who has advised Republican presidential candidates in the past. "He needs to give us more specifics."
The strategist adds that "Obama is doing a good job of keeping Romney off message and off balance" with his attacks on Romney's background as an investor at Bain Capital, for sending jobs overseas as a businessman, and for not revealing more of his income-tax returns. The Obama campaign says Romney may have gamed the system to pay little or no taxes in the past.
Still, some GOP veterans say the contest remains eminently winnable. "The macro factor heavily favors the Republicans this year," says Frank Donatelli, chairman of the GOPAC conservative political action committee and former White House political director for President Ronald Reagan. Donatelli argues that big-picture problems could put Romney over the top. For example, Donatelli says Americans want a president who will reduce unemployment, which remains stubbornly high at 8.2 percent, while millions more remain under-employed.
And even Romney's conservative critics concede that in the past week he has finally shown the ability to throw Obama onto the defensive by attacking the president's recent comments about the importance of government to the success of business.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.