WASHINGTON -- Republican activists are incredulous: Why can't Republican Mitt Romney seem to break open a tight race with President Barack Obama given the nation's sluggish economy and conservative enthusiasm to beat the Democrat?
"He ought to be killing Obama, and he's clearly not doing that," said 32-year-old R.J. Robinson, one of the thousands of activists attending the annual Values Voters Summit this weekend. "He should be doing better."
Added Mike Garner, a 27-year-old hawking "Reagan was right" buttons at the meeting: "If Romney loses this election, the party really needs to do some soul-searching."
Their sentiments were echoed in interviews with more than a dozen GOP activists and social conservative leaders who attended the annual gathering focused on social and cultural issues and sponsored by the Family Research Council. The summit was filled with rhetoric meant to fire up the party's base voters. Romney needs them to turn out in force at the polls in November and, between now and then, to convince others to do the same through extensive get-out-the-vote grassroots canvassing in swing-voting states. To energize them, dozens of high-profile conservatives – including former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – used their speeches to paint the 2012 race as a transformational moment in the country's history and insist that the president is turning the nation into a place its founders wouldn't recognize.
Energy was high inside the hotel ballroom where the luminaries spoke.
But frustration with Romney coursed through the hallways, where groups like the National Organization for Marriage and Americans United for Life promoted their policy positions and conservative pundits hawked their books.
These so-called values voters are a core part of the Republican base. They have never fully warmed to the former Massachusetts governor, who previously supported abortion rights and is a Mormon, a faith many evangelicals view skeptically. Even so, many said they were cheered by Romney's selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, a social and fiscal conservative hero to many in this group, as a running mate. They said they were rallying behind the Republican ticket, though mostly because of a desire to beat a Democratic president they like less than the Republican nominee. These activists said they're launching bus tours, signing up voters and offering to organize in their churches to help the GOP win.
But they worry that the candidate himself isn't doing enough to gain ground on Obama, who polls show has a slight edge nationally and in key states just seven weeks before the election. And they offered plenty of advice to Romney for changing the trajectory of the race in the coming weeks – echoing Republican presidential campaign veterans who over the past week have raised concerns about the state of the GOP nominee's run and whether he was letting the race slip away from him.
"He needs to be more visible," said Dawn Hawkins, who works for the anti-pornography group Morality In Media. Even though Romney and his allies outspent Obama and his backers for months on TV in battleground states, Hawkins said: "He's not up on TV very often. He has very few ads running on TV and radio. Obama has ads everywhere."
Tammy Baker, a military spouse originally from Texas, said she thinks Romney should sit down for "fireside chats" with the American people so they can get to know him better. "I'm not talking boxers and briefs here, you know. I'm not interested in that," she said. "But I do feel that he's pretty rigid, and because of that we don't get a chance to really get to know that person."
Baker's other piece of advice: "Let Paul Ryan out of the box."
Bryan Fischer, an official with the American Family Association, went even further, accusing Romney's campaign of putting "a bag over Paul Ryan's head."
Like others here, he warned that if Romney loses, the Republican Party is certain to undergo a tough period. "Soul-searching," "self-reflection" and "tumult" were the words others used.
"If the Republican Party loses this election, conservatives will have had it," Fischer said. "They will be done, finished."
Romney did not appear in person at the Values Voters gathering this year, instead appearing via video. His campaign clearly understands the nervousness among a group that's not Romney's natural constituency; it sent their favorite son – Ryan – to reassure them.
"I'm not the only one who has told Mitt that maybe he needs to talk more about himself and his life," Ryan told the group Friday morning, to scattered laughter from the crowd. "It wouldn't hurt if voters knew more of those little things that reveal a man's heart and his character."
Conference organizers said Romney himself has made personal overtures to evangelicals recently.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said that he met with Romney one-on-one about two months ago, and he told the Republican nominee he was prepared to tap a network of pastors and travel the country campaigning for the nominee.
"When it comes to evangelicals and Mormons, we have theological differences, and they're significant, and we're not going to gloss over those," Perkins said. "But we have a shared concern for this country. And we have a shared set of values that can help get the nation back on track. And that's what he is emphasizing and that's what I think he needs to continue to emphasize to draw social conservatives into his campaign."