The Charleston Gazette is a member of the Politico Network.
With just under eight weeks till Election Day, the anxious chorus from nervous Republicans can be heard loud and clear throug...
With just under eight weeks till Election Day, the anxious chorus from nervous Republicans can be heard loud and clear throughout the land: "Mitt -- what are you gonna do?"
Romney has had to quell doubters within his party throughout the 2012 cycle, but there is an extra dose of urgency this time. With Nov. 6 clearly in sight, several key moments of opportunity have already passed: he has chosen his running mate and the free media bonanza of his nominating convention has come and gone.
But still, in both national and swing-state polls, Romney is stubbornly short of the electoral majority he needs -- a maddening predicament for Republicans who see a vulnerable incumbent saddled with a sputtering economy and high unemployment.
There is no shortage of urgent advice for the former Massachusetts governor -- get tough, get real, get specific, you name it.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, said Romney's basic task is explaining to voters how he will create an economic recovery: "I think the question is can he clarify and make clear what he's trying to accomplish?"
"Romney's got to make the case in a compelling way for a Romney recovery," Gingrich said.
But given the lateness of the hour, Romney's self-evident limitations as a candidate and the difficulty he faces changing a campaign narrative that pegs him squarely as a Job-like figure beset by bad luck and worse political instincts, what can Romney actually do?
With the clock running out, Republicans are pushing Romney to try a range of alternative tactics to move the top lines of the race. The presidential debates, beginning Oct. 3, may be Romney's best remaining chance to change the way voters view him. But that doesn't mean he can wait until then to start convincing the country that he really, truly is the right man for the presidency in a moment of economic malaise.
What should Romney do now? Here are some suggestions from a roster of top Republicans.
Embrace your inner Monty Burns
The battle to define Romney is over and, in the eyes of most Republicans, the GOP presidential candidate lost. After responding only slowly and feebly to charges that he's a factory-closing, job-outsourcing and maybe even tax-evading plutocrat, Romney has probably missed the opportunity to make the American people like him.
That leaves only a very few options left for Romney if he wants to win over distrustful swing-state voters in the remaining 55 days of the campaign. One possibility is to reopen the air war over his business career and try to reverse the attacks Democrats ran against him.
Another, floated by several top GOP strategists, is to run toward the caricature of himself as a ruthless tycoon. The country needs dramatic changes to its government and economy. Romney has shied away from demanding painful sacrifices from the American people, but everyone knows that some degree of pain is on the way.
And who better to deliver results than a management consultant-turned-private equity wiz who made his professional bones -- and a vast fortune -- restructuring big institutions.
"I don't think he has to say he's Gordon Gekko. I just think he has to show that he has Gordon Gekko's numbers brain, that he's been outrageously successful and he can make my business more successful," said Republican media consultant Fred Davis, who crafted John McCain's 2008 campaign ads.
Davis said it doesn't make sense to reengage the Bain debate and Romney shouldn't hesitate to flip back to the upbeat, laser-focused economic message he ran last spring, before the Democratic attack ads started.
"Mitt Romney's not a simple thinker and he doesn't lay things out in a simple, common-man set of words. He has to work harder at that," Davis said. "If my business was going bankrupt and I had the choice for Mitt Romney to come in and help me figure it out or Barack Obama to come in and help me figure it out, that's a no-brainer."
Another top Republican strategist bemoaned that "some of the things that need fixing would require a time machine" -- a way of getting back to an earlier moment in the campaign when Romney's negatives were less cemented in place.
"At this point, it may be worth going all-in and saying, I may not be the most likable candidate, but I'm the most qualified -- I don't know if you can literally say that," the Republican said. "Maybe the best strategy is to embrace the perception that he is a cold-hearted cutter of government waste and inefficiency who will make the tough and at times unpopular decisions to turn the country around."
Get detailed -- and get excited -- about what you'll do as president
Romney has set some pretty specific goals for his administration, if he's elected president: create 12 million jobs in four years, achieve energy independence by 2020, balance the federal budget, etc.
What Romney hasn't done is talk about those goals in a way that conveys to voters how he'll achieve them.
Conservatives have been quick to cry foul over that charge: Obama hasn't been specific about his policies either. And few objective observers came away from the president's speech last week in Charlotte, N.C., with any real clue about the specific goals of his second term. But as a matter of pure politics, Obama faces a different challenge than Romney does. Voters know what Obama is like as president. They don't yet have a positive sense of how life would be different under Romney.
The thinness of Romney's policy message is all the more conspicuous because he chose House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan as his running mate. The Wisconsin congressman became a national figure with his stark, specific recommendations for budget reform. His selection for the VP job was heralded as a shift toward "boldness" in Romney's camp. Few bold policy proposals have followed.
Gingrich pointed to energy as an especially promising area for Romney to dive in more deeply on policy.
"It's specific and it's the opposite of Obama. [Romney is] able to say, look, on the first day I'm going to sign the Keystone pipeline, period. He's blocking it; I'll sign it. On the first day, I'm going to open up offshore [drilling]. He's blocking it; I'll sign it," Gingrich said. "It gives him a substantive way to really build a case."
The argument that Americans aren't better off now than they were four years ago may not carry Romney over the finish line on its own, Gingrich said: "I think that the Romney people should pose a very forward-looking question, which is: Do you want the Obama stagnation to continue or do you want a Romney recovery?"
Romney's latest round of ads mention his big-picture policy proposals, such as stopping scheduled defense cuts and balancing the budget, but the commercials are no more specific than Romney was in his broad-strokes convention speech.
Said one senior Republican strategist involved in the 2012 campaign: "He's got his millions and he needs to spend them."
"They can be talking more about Romney boosting his favorable [rating] and talking about what he would do," the strategist said. "The ads they just put out aren't enough."
Stop chasing shiny objects
It's one of the truisms of the 2012 campaign: Romney's campaign is all about jobs and the economy.
Except, that is, when Romney's talking about the Chicago teachers' strike. Or keeping "God" on U.S. currency. Or the state of 2012 swing-state polling. Or clarifying -- and re-clarifying -- his views on the Affordable Care Act.
For a candidate who's supposed to be single-minded in his focus on pocketbook issues, Romney has veered off message with surprising frequency, introducing new attack lines against Obama on a continuous basis, trying to use the news of the day as a bludgeon against the White House.
There's nothing wrong with trying to score tactical points day in and day out. But Republicans have been sighing louder and louder at Romney's apparent inability to stay on point.
"I think they've got to get out of talking about the political part of his campaign right now and get back on what's No. 1," said Republican strategist John Brabender, an adviser to onetime Romney foe Rick Santorum.
Brabender said it was a mistake this week for the Romney campaign to put out a memo responding to Obama's post-convention polling bump: "Every day they're talking about polls, every day they're talking about the horse race is a better day for the Obama campaign. And I think they've got to be careful not to fall into that trap on a daily basis."
Longtime GOP operative Ed Rollins, who ran Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign, said Romney's weekend appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" was a vivid case of the candidate getting pulled away repeatedly from his core themes.
"He basically needs to have a very strong answer of what he needs to do to fix the economy," Rollins said. "It's no longer a time to play personality games."
Stop going to Wolfeboro
There are plenty of swing voters in New Hampshire, but few of them can be found on the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee.
That's the idyllic setting of Romney's Wolfeboro, N.H., getaway, where the candidate seems to get away for relaxation as frequently as possible.
For activists and operatives who think Romney has been overly passive in the 2012 campaign, there's no better symbol for that than his repeated outings on all manner of watercraft -- boats, jet skis and, at Romney's La Jolla vacation home, a body board. It's prompted grumbling comparisons to John Kerry's 2004 windsurfing excursion, except Kerry didn't spend weekend after weekend on Nantucket.
Last week, Romney took a break from the campaign trail on the traditionally political occasion of Labor Day and was photographed on the New Hampshire lake.
It's not just a matter of cosmetic frustration on the right. There are precious few campaign days left in 2012 and Romney has already spent too many of them far away from the electorate, either hanging out with his family or -- more commonly -- raising money behind closed doors.
The Romney campaign's theory of the case -- that Obama is simply disqualified by virtue of the high unemployment rate -- could well be proven right. But a whole range of Republicans would like to see their nominee doing more to win the debate against Obama.
One Republican who asked to speak anonymously laid out this challenge for Romney in the weeks before the first debate: "Get off the bus."
That is to say: Spend time with the voters whose economic frustration your campaign is trying to channel.
Not all Republicans -- including Gingrich -- are ready to hit the panic button when it comes to Romney's campaign. Henry Barbour, the Republican National Committee member from Mississippi, argued that "Obama has a much taller order in these last two months than the Romney campaign does."
"They want more time because they haven't quite been able to get it right, and that's a big order. That's a big ask," Barbour said. "I think there's a good number of folks sitting out there and they're ready to walk away [from] Obama."
Others fear a winnable election may be slipping away. "We're at a stage where [Romney] hasn't established a narrative and I'm not sure that he can at this point. The race is going to be about the factors that the voters want it to be about, not what the campaigns want it to be about," said GOP strategist Bruce Haynes, of the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies. "[The debates] are the last opportunity for him to elevate himself and disqualify Obama. The convention was an opportunity to do that and it was an opportunity missed."
Said Haynes: "Now is a period of time where they have to be agile, they need to seize opportunities and, you know, make the play of the day and win little battles that amount to something bigger."