WASHINGTON -- Still basking Wednesday morning in his decisive victory in the previous night's recall election, Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker went on national TV and laid out what he thinks Mitt Romney needs to do to win the Badger State in November against President Barack Obama.
"I think he's got to lay out a clear platform, something similar to what our friend Paul Ryan has done," Walker said in an appearance on MSNBC's "Daily Rundown." "If he does something like that, and he makes a compelling case to the people of Wisconsin that he's willing to take those kind of risks and get America back on track for our kids and for our grandkids, he could win."
"We love people like Paul Ryan in Wisconsin because Paul has the courage to tackle these big issues at the national level. If Governor Romney wants to be competitive in Wisconsin, and I think he can, he needs to tackle those same issues," Walker said on Fox.
Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin's southeast corner and the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has been a lightning rod for Democrats because of the reforms he has proposed to the Medicare program and to the federal budget.
Romney has already endorsed Ryan's "premium support" plan for Medicare, and has publicly aligned himself with the Ryan budget over the last few months.
So Walker's comments were something of a challenge to Romney, a call for him to not just endorse Ryan's ideas, but to run on them. More deeply, the comments by the newly invigorated governor, having just emerged from a heavyweight fight over controversial changes to collective bargaining right for state employees, echoed a growing chorus from the right saying Romney needs to be more bold.
It's something of an odd time for conservatives to be calling on Romney to take more risks and to do something different. He's had a good run of late. The Obama campaign continues to search for its footing, thrown off balance by a declining economic picture and by an odd pattern of its own prominent surrogates undermining its message. Romney's favorable ratings with voters are climbing, though he still has high negatives. Some observers now think the election is possibly Romney's to lose.
The Romney campaign seems to be thinking, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And this fits with what has been its approach since before the primary even began: make the election about Obama.
But for a number of thought leaders on the right, it is not enough. They want more.
"Mr. Romney has to give us a plan. He has to tell us his priorities. To lead is to prioritize," Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal last weekend.
"Mitt Romney has been more straightforward, but even he hasn’t campaigned on the choices he would make," David Brooks wrote Monday in The New York Times.
The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol acknowledged that Romney has had "a good beginning to his general election campaign."
"But he could do more, it seems to us, to help mold public sentiment—to explain, to quote Lincoln again, 'where we are, and whither we are tending,' so as to help us 'better judge what to do, and how to do it,'" Kristol wrote. "He could do more to put his particular criticisms of the Obama administration in a broader context, and to frame his own proposals in a more comprehensive narrative."
And Yuval Levin, a former Bush administration policy adviser who is now at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, penned a nearly 4,800 word essay detailing how Romney has failed so far to (and here are those words the Romney campaign trembles to hear, either with rage or fear) close the deal.
"He has begun to offer an agenda that speaks to some key elements of the predicament, but he has not made a coherent case for that agenda as a whole, and so ends up presenting voters with laundry lists of policy ideas wrapped in general criticisms of Obama," Levin wrote in the Weekly Standard. " The Romney campaign has yet to make an overarching case for the candidate."
After running through a laundry list of what Romney should do specifically, Levin noted: "He has already proposed a number of these ideas, and could easily find his way to others. What he has lacked is a unifying thread."
All of this is enough to make aides to the Romney campaign throw up their hands. They think it's nonsense that there is any hesitancy about their candidate among Republican voters.
"Mitt has tied down the GOP base," wrote Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, in a memo this week that showed the former Massachusetts governor with 90 percent support among Republicans.
As for policy, they point to Romney's 59-point jobs plan, his proposals for defense, tax policy, Medicare, Social Security, education and others. They contend that Obama has said very little about what he would do in a second term.
And they say that Romney has consistently framed the election as a big choice between himself and the current president.
"We're going to face a defining decision as a people," Romney said in Schaumburg, Ill. in March, the night he won that state's primary. "Our choice will not be about party or even personality. This election will be about principle. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot."
On Thursday morning, Romney economic advisers Glenn Hubbard and Phil Gramm argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that "Romney's economic principles are strikingly similar to [Ronald] Reagan's."
Romney has also tried to inject more poetry and imagery into his speeches. That same speech in Schaumburg marked one of the first times he began to talk about "dreamers" and how his policies would allow them to dream big.
More recently, Romney has been talking about picking up the torch from the World War II generation as a way to tap into the sense many Americans have that the country's moral fiber is fraying.
"The torch that was held aloft by the greatest generation is getting a little dim, because they're getting older and there are fewer and fewer of them. It's now our time to seize that torch, a torch representing dignity, liberty, hope," Romney said at a Las Vegas fundraiser last week. "It's not America's torch, but it's America's duty and honor to hold that torch aloft. And we're going to do it, for ourselves and for our kids."
Walker's comments, however, were the first time the Romney campaign has been hit for not being bold enough by someone who is actually in the heat of political combat, rather than someone sitting on the sidelines pontificating. But it's not clear that Walker's sentiments are widely held by others in the GOP political world, which often views with skepticism tactical suggestions from its ideas wing. Ryan himself certainly hasn't come out and said he wishes Romney would talk about his plan more.
However, Walker's victory in Wisconsin may change the dynamic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a keen political observer, told Roll Call Wednesday that "the message out of [Wisconsin] is that you can take courageous and difficult positions, and the American people understand it."
Romney's approach so far has been to endorse and embrace the Ryan plan but to focus on criticizing Obama, rather than giving the Democrats a big fat target to fire at.
For example, Romney spokesman and adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was asked this past weekend on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" if Ryan's budget would be Romney's "blueprint."
Fehrnstrom immediately pivoted to an attack: "Well at least he has a blueprint," he said.
Not every conservative columnist thinks the Ryan plan is a political winner for Romney. Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, wrote in his regular column for Bloomberg that "Obama’s best bet is probably to hit Romney again and again over his plans for Social Security and Medicare."
"That’s a big issue: Nothing Romney is proposing would be more consequential," Ponnuru wrote.
But even Ponnuru expressed some desire to have the debate. If Obama went after Romney on Medicare, "it would force Romney to confront the issue head-on, and the country would get the important debate it deserves rather than months of sniping about trivial side- issues and non-issues."
There's not much incentive, at least now, for Romney to change course. But if his numbers start to slip, or if his campaign somehow goes awry, expect the voices clamoring for a bigger, more positive message to get louder and more numerous.