WASHINGTON — On the eve of the first presidential debate, the early autumn Republican reviews are in for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, and they are not pretty.
In some states, candidates who share the Nov. 6 ballot with the former Massachusetts governor already have taken steps to establish independence from him. Party strategists predict more will follow, perhaps as soon as next week, unless Romney can dispel fears that he is headed for defeat despite the weak economy that works against President Barack Obama's prospects.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who headed the Republican Party when it won control of Congress in the 1990s, said disapprovingly over the weekend that Romney's campaign has been focusing on polling, political process and campaign management. "It's about everything but the issues. It's about everything but Obama's policies and the failures of those policies," he said.
A prominent party strategist, Matthew Dowd, says the Romney campaign was almost guilty of political malpractice over the summer and during the two political conventions. It "left the playing field totally to Barack Obama and the Obama campaign" and "'basically set the tone for the final 60 days of this campaign, which put them behind after the conventions," Dowd said. He and Barbour both spoke on ABC.
Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to Romney, defended the campaign in a conference call with reporters on Monday. "Our message is very clear, which is we cannot afford four more years like the last four years. And we need a real recovery, we need policies that are going to help," he said.
Republicans say there is time for Romney to steady his campaign but only if he acts quickly.
It is unclear how long congressional candidates are willing to wait for a turnaround. Several Republican strategists point to this week, which includes the debate and Friday's release of September unemployment figures.
Some Republicans who are in periodic contact with the campaign say Romney's strategists have concluded that a recent uptick in public optimism, coming on top of Obama's success to date, complicates the attempt to defeat the president solely on the basis of pocketbook issues.
In recent days, Romney has emphasized criticism of the president's foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, where a terrorist attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
Barbour, echoing what others say privately, was dismissive of the suggestion that Romney should spread his campaign focus. The public is "concerned about how backwards the Middle East has gone during the last year. But they're much more concerned about their children having jobs, about them being able to pay for their health insurance, for $3.85 gasoline," he said.
Privately, GOP strategists also agreed with Barbour's public statement that Romney's campaign has been unable so far to settle on a single, overarching theme to tie together its advertising, the rhetoric of its candidate and appearances by surrogates.
Many of the Republicans who commented on the race declined to be identified by name, saying they were not authorized to speak publicly about strategy.
In one statement emailed on Monday, the campaign quoted Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan as telling WTJM in Milwaukee: "This election is a clear choice between different paths."
That was close to what the Obama campaign wants, and considerably different from Romney's earlier insistence that the race is a referendum on the president's performance in office.
Already, there are examples of concern from Republican candidates in other races, some subtle, others less so.
In Arizona, Rep. Jeff Flake recently began airing a commercial that accuses Democrat Richard Carmona of being Obama's "rubber stamp," a candidate whom the president recruited to run for the Senate to "help push his agenda." The ad doesn't say so, but Obama would need support in the next Congress only if he defeats Romney this November and wins four more years in the White House.
In North Dakota, Rep. Rick Berg, also running for the Senate, promises in an ad he will "serve as a check on Obama's failed policies" by fighting to repeal Obamacare, reduce government regulation and scale back the debt.
Both men are favored to win their races, taking place in states that Romney is expected to carry.
Nervousness first surfaced publicly among Republican Senate candidates two weeks ago, with the disclosure of a video of Romney saying 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes and a like percentage view themselves as victims who are entitled to government benefits. As a candidate, he said, "my job is not to worry" about them.
Linda McMahon, making a second try for a Senate seat from Connecticut, quickly expressed a different opinion. "I disagree with Governor Romney's insinuation that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care," she said in a statement released by her campaign.
Appointed Sen. Dean Heller, in a competitive race in Nevada, said, "My mom was a school cafeteria cook, so I have a very different view of the world than the one Romney expressed."
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, running for the Senate, said, "The presidential thing is bound to have an impact on every election." His remark produced a rebuttal from former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, who said: "My good friend Tommy Thompson sounds like Barack Obama, blaming it on somebody else."