WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney and his team will be hit with a merciless barrage of friendly fire in the days after the November election if the presidential race continues its current trajectory and the carping from GOP analysts and strategists the past week is any guide.
"This is a gimme election, or at least it should be," said conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham on Monday. "If you can't beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party. Shut it down. Start new, with new people."
Neither the conservative commentariat nor the base for which it sometimes speaks has ever been enamored of Romney, but the man who could hardly break 25 percent during primary season was chosen as the vehicle to drive Obama from office. With polls moving in the president's direction, the Romney campaign continuing to stumble, and Obama outraising Romney for the first time in months, conservatives are wondering if the lemon they bought is enough to finish the race.
The sluggishness comes just weeks after the conservative movement was brimming with hope over the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to be the vice presidential nominee.
But the wished-for ideological battle has not fully materialized. With shaky poll numbers, the conservative thinking goes, let's at the very least go down with a fight. Invoking the specter of failed Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard warned this week, "It's not enough to float like a butterfly. You have to sting like a bee. No sting, no victory."
John Podhoretz, writing in the New York Post, slammed the Romney campaign's tepid response to its tailspin. "The Romney campaign seems to have settled on an argument that Obama's poll strength is just a post-convention 'sugar high,' as its pollster Neil Newhouse said in a strikingly infelicitous memo," Podhoretz wrote. "It's interesting Newhouse hit on the dismissive description of a 'sugar high' -- because a sugar rush is what Romney's side needs."
The low blood-sugar levels could be felt at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Convention speakers praised Romney only 213 times all week, less than a third of the kind words Democrats heaped on their president, according to tabulations done by HuffPost's Off The Bus crew.
Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom joined Newhouse as a target, as friendly critics would rather hit Romney staff than Romney himself while the campaign is still being waged.
"I'm sure he's a nice guy, but I don't happen to think he represents the best vision for Romney on camera," Ingraham said of Fehrnstrom. "Election after election, we hire people who have lost previous campaigns, who've run campaigns that have failed, who have message campaigns where the message fell flat, and they keep getting rehired ... I don't understand that. I don't know why those are the people you hire."
Columnist George Will, appearing on Ingraham's show, returned to an earlier theme -- that Romney simply isn't a born conservative. "Mitt Romney does not have the feeling, the visceral, philosophically sound feeling for what's wrong with the progressive movement in this country," Will said. “He's a good man, a good fellow. He'd be a much better president than the one we've got. But he doesn't -- what I've said before about him is conservatism is a second language for him. And he is still learning it. And it's hard to learn this thing in the midst of a high-stakes presidential campaign."
The Romney campaign has repeatedly refused to answer questions about what tax loopholes and deductions it would eliminate and what spending it would cut. Kristol said that it's time for specifics. "When a challenger merely appeals to disappointment with the incumbent and tries to reassure voters he's not too bad an alternative, that isn't generally a formula for victory. Mike Dukakis lost," he wrote in this week's column, headlined "Speak Up, Mitt!"
Weekly Standard columnist Stephen Hayes, talking on Fox News, echoed Kristol. "I feel like now we've sort of reverted to this pre-Ryan moment -- this safe, cautious campaign," Hayes worried, part of a chorus sounding resigned to the realization that while Romney may have chosen the combative Ryan, he left out the combativeness. Or, as former George W. Bush adviser Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post, "Romney chose Ryan, not Ryanism."
But Romney's calculation -- that he may just be able to back into the White House -- may not be an unreasonable one. After all, he's not Obama, Rush Limbaugh reminded listeners.
"He may as well be Elmer Fudd as far as we're concerned," Limbaugh said. "We're voting against Obama. I don't care who they put on the ticket, we're voting against Obama. That has not changed, and there are more people now than in 2010 who are gonna vote against Obama."
Romney might still win, although his campaign hasn't made it any easier, according to Charlie Cook, the political analyst whose judgment carries great weight with both parties.
"This is a very close race and one that still could go either way," Cook wrote in National Journal. "But the odds of Romney capitalizing on this economy, and the opportunity it affords, seem lower than they were before the conventions. If Republicans and Romney supporters are growing nervous, they should be."