Adopting a prevent defense when it's only the second quarter and you're not even ahead is dubious enough as a strategy. —William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard
WOLFEBORO, N.H. — A chorus of prominent conservative voices is worrying aloud that Republican candidate Mitt Romney's play-it-safe strategy is jeopardizing his chance to win the presidency.
As President Barack Obama's campaign intensifies criticism of Romney's background, influential Republicans — right-leaning leaders in business and the media — charge that Romney's message on the economy and other issues is short on detail and muddled at best.
Romney dismissed the negative attention as he faced reporters Friday to respond to another weak federal jobs report.
"I don't say much to critics," he said.
In an editorial Thursday, The Wall Street Journal said the Romney campaign is "slowly squandering an historic opportunity."
"The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it's Mr. Obama's fault," the newspaper said. "We're on its email list and the main daily message from the campaign is that 'Obama isn't working.' Thanks, guys, but Americans already know that. What they want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the president's policies aren't working and how Mr. Romney's policies will do better."
The harsh critique comes as Romney nears the end of a weeklong vacation at his New Hampshire lakeside home, where he has been almost totally out of the public eye, except for a brief Fourth of July appearance. Polls show Obama slightly leading Romney nationally and in several states that are critical in the hunt to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Nov. 6 election.
Romney has consistently criticized Obama's handling of the economy, health care, domestic spending and foreign policy, but he has offered few specific prescriptions for what he would do differently. The strategy is reflective of a campaign that hopes to make the election a referendum on Obama — in particular his handling of the economy — as economic indicators suggest the pace of the nation's recovery is slowing.
"I put out 59 steps for how I'd get the economy going. And I don't think I've seen any from the president that show what he's planning on doing," Romney said Friday from a local hardware store not far from his vacation home. "I've laid out my 59 steps. Take a look at them. I think you'll find them very specific."
The federal government released a June jobs report on Friday that could have major political ramifications with the election four months away.
U.S. employers added only 80,000 jobs in June, a third straight month of weak hiring that shows the economy is struggling. The Labor Department says the unemployment rate was unchanged at 8.2 percent.
The economy has added just 75,000 jobs a month in the April-June quarter. That's one-third of 226,000 a month created in the first quarter. Job creation is also trailing last year's pace through the first six months of 2012.
Despite the numbers, conservatives say Romney still needs to better explain his plans. There is concern that Democrats are successfully weakening Romney's business career at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that invested in companies who helped shift American jobs overseas in some cases.
"Adopting a prevent defense when it's only the second quarter and you're not even ahead is dubious enough as a strategy," William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, wrote Thursday.
The Romney campaign says the former Massachusetts governor has been laser-focused on the economy since he launched his campaign a year ago. And they suggest their critics are misguided.
"I think they have to recognize that we're in a campaign mode where simple, tough, declarative sentences are required, that this is not a campaign to be won on nuance but to be won on making sharp distinctions with the failure of the Obama administration economically, the loss of jobs and the pain that Americans across the country are feeling," former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, a key Romney surrogate, said on CNN.
Conservative critics include media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who took to Twitter recently and charged that Obama's Chicago-based team "will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful."
Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, has also jabbed Romney for playing it safe.
Some of Romney's longtime political advisers go back to his days as Massachusetts governor. And there is no sign of a major shakeup among his senior staff, despite the addition of some communications staffers who will be taking on more responsibility in some cases.
"Governor Romney respects the team that he has and he has full confidence in them," said spokeswoman Gail Gitcho.
The criticism has intensified in the days since the Romney campaign offered seemingly contradictory messages on the Supreme Court's health care ruling. The court ruled that the so-called individual mandate in Obama's signature law is constitutional, in part, because of the federal government's taxing authority.
Republicans seized on the explanation and accused Obama of raising taxes. But that raised questions about Romney's health care overhaul in Massachusetts, which also forces people to purchase health insurance.
A day after a Romney senior adviser declared that the mandate was not a tax, Romney went on TV to say it was.
Romney on Friday refused to address the apparent contradiction directly when asked.
"I've spoken about health care from the day we passed it in Massachusetts," he said. "And people said, 'Is this something you'd apply at the federal level?' And I said, No. I said the right course for the federal government is to allow states to create their own plans."
The president, meanwhile, has launched a two-day bus tour of northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, where he told supporters Thursday that Romney would pursue economic policies that favor the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. And Obama's top political adviser, David Axelrod, cited an Associated Press investigation of Romney's personal offshore investments.
"Why would you transfer your Bermuda business . to your wife the day before you became governor? Why did you not want that on your disclosure form?" Axelrod told ABC News, accusing Romney of being the most secretive candidate since President Richard Nixon.
Romney did not address those attacks Friday morning, as he neared the end of his family vacation.
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.