WASHINGTON -– Republicans could use a bit of advice from an unlikely source right now: Obama adviser David Plouffe, who in 2010 told Democrats worried about the mid-term elections, "No bed-wetting."
Now it's Republicans who are frightened. Mitt Romney's recent troubles have created a sense of gloom, and a good dose of doom, in the Grand Old Party.
"I think there is a broad and growing feeling now, among Republicans, that this thing is slipping out of Romney’s hands," wrote the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, in a "come to Jesus," in-your-face column posted on Tuesday night.
Noonan is correct.
After going from a Democratic convention that gave President Barack Obama a bump, to Romney's bumbling handling of Middle East unrest, to a story about campaign infighting, and now with the release of a secretly taped video of Romney, numerous Republicans said there is now a sense of siege.
"There's a feeling of almost that this thing's in free fall," said a Republican consultant with deep experience on Capitol Hill and extensive contacts in the Romney campaign. "When campaigns spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure out why they're broken, I don't know if they ever come back," said this Republican, who like others who spoke about their frustration, did not want to be identified.
Another operative who has worked for the Republican Party on many national congressional campaigns was blunt about his feelings.
"I'm pretty discouraged. The thing is, [Democrats] ran Jimmy Carter, and we answered with Thomas Dewey," he said, referring to the Republican politician who lost presidential elections in 1944 and 1948. "And it didn't have to be that way."
Another operative working on congressional races warned that in key swing states, Romney's support in internal polling is well below that of GOP candidates in districts where the presidential nominee has to get big support to have a chance at winning. "He's just well under all our other guys," this Republican said. "I'm very concerned."
A fourth operative with experience in Republican presidential campaigns, who talks to those on the Romney campaign but is not working for them, said, "There is a lot of unease within the campaign itself and within the Republican Party and the conservative movement about the state of the campaign.
"I think they feel like they can't really catch a break, that this whole thing's been a much steeper hill than it should have been," he said.
Matt Lewis, a conservative blogger for the Daily Caller, said of the sentiments in Noonan's column, in which she pleaded with Republican bosses to intervene in Romney's campaign: "This isn't bed-wetting."
"Mitt Romney should take some of Peggy Noonan's sincere advice," Lewis wrote on Twitter.
Partly out of necessity, there is a determination among those at Romney headquarters in Boston, as well as among those in the party invested in their cause, that they are going to forge ahead and that there is still a lot of time until Nov. 6.
Furthermore, there is a tendency in campaigns that face the scrutiny that only exists in a presidential race to develop a bunker mentality that makes it hard to receive legitimate critiques. Presidential campaigns get so much criticism that a certain amount of immunity is necessary.
But if Romney's situation is as dire as some Republicans say, his campaign's resistance to scoldings from the cheap seats could be a self-inflicted wound.
Not all Republicans agreed with the freak-out, however.
"This collective handwringing that's going on is completely in line with what happens when a presidential campaign is behind, or falls behind, or is down in the polls," said Jim Dyke, a Republican consultant from South Carolina who is tied in to Romney campaign leaders. "One, people really want to win, the really smart insider Republicans. And two, every one of them think they could have run a better campaign than the people who are actually running it."
But, he said, "It seems a little short-sighted to be hitting the alarm button at this point."
That raises the million-dollar question: What does Romney do to recover?
For starters, experienced Republicans said, he needs to deal definitively with his comments from the May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., where he said that 47 percent of voters "will vote for the president no matter what" because they "are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them."
"That tape is going to be seen before so many eyeballs so many times the next week and a half they'll have to address it fully and finally within the next day or two," said Juleanna Glover, a veteran Republican political consultant who held several high-profile jobs in the Bush administration.
Ron Bonjean, a former House Republican leadership aide, said that by next month, Romney's mistakes will have raised the stakes for his debate performances.
"What these comments do is place an enormous amount of pressure to perform above and beyond the call of duty, especially in the first debate. He is going to be called out on the mat by President Obama regarding these comments," Bonjean said.
Bonjean said it was important for Romney to go out of his way to demonstrate empathy for Americans who are in situations where they need government assistance.
"While he's doubling down on what he's saying, it's important to weave in some compassionate language about the 47 percent and how many of are looking to create a better life for themselves and to follow the American dream," Bonjean said.
As for tactics, Glover suggested that Romney do a "roadblock" of the TV morning shows on Wednesday morning. But as of late Tuesday night, there appeared to be no plans for such a move by Romney. He appeared on Fox News on Tuesday afternoon for a nine-minute interview with Neil Cavuto, and was not scheduled to make another public appearance until a Univision "Meet the Candidates" forum on Wednesday evening in Miami.
One of the Republicans who did not want to talk on the record because he now works for a nationally known politician complained that Romney needed to be more visible and aggressive in responding to the video.
"He should be flooding the airwaves," this Republican said, adding that "everything they do feels so controlled."
"They do very few interviews and when they do they're very controlled. They do very few OTR's [unannounced stops at restaurants and other informal settings]. Their events feel staged. They just need to put him out there and take some risks," he said. "Do some OTR's that give people a closer look and see a different side of him, and take a couple risks. They're running as though they were winning, and they're not."
Glover said that there was some wisdom, however, in the Romney campaign not overreacting to the press firestorm, and in being judicious in how they respond.
"We of course like to not have had a tape like that appear, but there's a way to mitigate the damage. And there's a way to ride the next trajectory of events so that he will be the next president. We just don't know what the next trajectory of events will be," Glover said.
"Having lived through so many resurrections and unpredictable falls as well as recounts, who knows how this will fall out," she said.
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