By Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman and Anna Palmer
If political campaigns have nine lives, nervous Republicans feel Mitt Romney has used up at least eight.
While insisting the party is still short of full-fledged panic, the video of Romney disparaging Americans who don't pay income taxes and the GOP nominee's consistently unsteady explanation of what he meant has prompted a chorus of fed-up Republicans to speak out about a campaign they see as badly in need of a jolt.
Elected officials, donors and operatives are irritated about facing yet another distraction, but the surreptitiously recorded clips have triggered a round of broader complaints over Romney's fundraising-focused schedule, lackluster candidate skills and a seemingly adrift campaign that trails in key battleground states with less than 50 days to go.
Opinion is mixed on just how damaging Romney discussing "the 47 percent" at a spring fundraiser will ultimately be for the campaign. But longtime GOP hands find the video and Romney's attempt to neither fully embrace nor fully apologize for his comments to be symptomatic of a larger problem. The former Massachusetts governor can't seem to string consecutive positive days together and often is his own worst enemy. A month's worth of woes, beginning with a forgettable GOP convention, has taken its toll on the Republican psyche.
"The problem is the campaign is now in a spiral and no one knows how to pull out," said Republican strategist Greg Strimple, who worked on John McCain's 2008 campaign. "Romney needs a big idea, then he needs to shift the debate to spending."
But instead of the retooled and refocused campaign aides promised just 48 hours ago, what Romney has now is the biggest distraction to his campaign yet, one that has prompted two Republican Senate candidates - including one in his own home state — to distance themselves from his original comments.
"That's not the way I view the world," said Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) of Romney's observation. "As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in."
Even as they lament this latest unforced error from Romney, many in the party believe their candidate faces more fundamental challenges, including a dwindling number of days left before the election to make his case to swing-state voters.
Romney has not held a public event since Friday and spent much of Tuesday raising money in Utah and Texas.
"He needs to be talking about the economy and not in Utah," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "He's not going to get beat because of money. He ought to be running in Ohio and Florida like he's running for governor and running in Virginia like he's running for sheriff."
Some Republicans actually think there's political promise in having a debate about the larger issue of the growing dependency on government benefits. But few not working for Romney's campaign believe that a nominee shown to be politically tone deaf can effectively articulate the case.
"I think he's better served saying, ‘I've said what I said, I'm worried about [the] culture of dependency and that's why I've got [a] plan for the middle class' and just go to that," said former George W. Bush adviser and American Crossroads co-founder Karl Rove.
Rove, emphasizing that Romney has "plenty of time," offered caution about using the 47 percent figure, noting that many such Americans who don't pay income taxes are part of the GOP coalition.
"A lot of people who get a Social Security check paid into that their entire lives and they're plenty wired up about the deficit and there are lots of people getting an unemployment check who would love to have a job, so you've got to be careful about that number," said the Bush strategist.
Another senior Republican who's also deeply involved in this cycle's campaign was more blunt about what many in the party are concluding about their standard-bearer this year.
"As a candidate, he is just not going to improve," said the source.
This Republican, looking at fresh polling showing President Barack Obama still in the lead in key states such as Ohio and Nevada, described the mood among GOP officials as: "Not panic, but a recognition that the way to get [to 270 electoral votes] is limited."
And that is what has Republicans more worried than Romney's latest stubbed toe: They're looking at grim swing-state numbers with the soundtrack of a ticking clock.
"We're losing," said veteran GOP strategist Jim Dyke. "And when that happens — it doesn't matter if it's a Republican or Democratic campaign or whether the campaign has been run masterfully or has been total crap — when the election gets closer, people start to get nervous."
The common refrain among Republican elites is that Romney still has the debates, and particularly the first one on Oct. 3 in Denver, to set his candidacy straight.
But GOP donors, especially, are growing nervous.
Several told POLITICO that concern has been on the rise over the past couple of weeks following the Republican convention, where Clint Eastwood's surreal performance left many questioning the direction of what had been a tightly controlled campaign narrative. As Romney slipped in the polls last week and continued to take heat from some over his handling of protests at U.S. foreign outposts and the death of a U.S. diplomat in Libya, the disquiet has intensified.
"There seems to be growing frustration," said one Romney bundler, who's spoken to other donors in recent days. "He fumbled the ball on the Libya response. … People are a little frustrated and they just feel like we do have an opportunity to win this cycle, and we're just … imploding."
The Romney campaign moved to try and tamp down donors' anxiety Tuesday with a series of conference calls. Senior advisers Matt Rhoades, Beth Myers, Spencer Zwick and Ed Gillespie discussed the strategy moving forward, according to participants on the calls. Much of the discussion on one of the larger conference calls centered on providing more details of Romney's plan for how he will govern, a major criticism that has been lodged against him in recent weeks.
But one donor, who has raised well over six figures for Romney, expressed irritation that the larger call allowed no opportunities to ask questions nor supplied any answers on how exactly the campaign intended to make up its deficit in battlegrounds.
"Nobody talked about how they're going to win these states," the donor said.
But on a call later in the same hour Tuesday featuring fewer donors, there were many questions, a number of them stated bluntly to the effect of asking just how the campaign planned to stop the negative headlines and fight back, according to people familiar with what was said. Donors also expressed exasperation that the campaign hadn't been able to project the Romney that they've grown to know — somebody they see as competent and more comfortable with himself than the one the moneymen are seeing on their television sets.
The contributors were told that the reports of internal tensions, first outlined by POLITICO on Sunday night, were overstated. The campaign is running smoothly, the officials said.
The advisers did not address the video controversy directly, according to two Romney bundlers.
The round of calls was at least the third in as many business days, an uptick in communications to Romney's financial supporters.
"There are a lot of people who are getting nervous about the fact that this campaign doesn't seem to be going anywhere," a third bundler said, noting that Washington fundraisers operate in a herd mentality and a general sense that the campaign is floundering could cause big problems for the money operation in the weeks leading up to the election.
Others in the party involved in Senate and House races are also growing uncomfortable. A senior Republican involved in a major outside campaign effort fretted that Romney's woes may have a domino effect.
"I'm concerned that this could drive down our fundraising numbers," said the Republican, who brought up without prompting whether some groups may ultimately have to focus their effort on down-ballot races. "Nobody wants to be there yet," said the Republican, noting that any serious talk wouldn't take place until after the first debate. "But you have to have a Plan B."
Senior Romney adviser Kevin Madden, traveling with Romney on Tuesday, tried to blunt the growing storyline, arguing that the election is still about making a big choice that transcends political tactics.
"It's focused on the direction of the country and I think the voters right now have to make up their mind," Madden said. "They are still viewing it [through] the lens of that."
Republican professionals, though, are viewing the election with an added layer of concern after the past few weeks.
What bothered so many party hands about the video in particular was that it highlighted Romney's painfully visible weaknesses, most notably his dismissive language about those who don't pay income taxes. Suggesting that nearly half the country's voters are unobtainable for the GOP is akin to declaring political suicide, many Republicans remarked.
"Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him," wrote an incredulous Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol.
Republican fundraiser Matt Keelen said comments like those Romney made are surprising in this political environment.
"I am surprised people allow themselves that much candor," Keelen said. "There has to be discipline there that you can always be taped and that thus you be taken out of context."
More than a few Republicans mused out loud about how Romney could have made his point.
"What he might have said is: ‘There are 47 percent who don't pay taxes, many would like to be successful, under Obama it has been difficult for them to climb the ladder of success, and my goal is to get them to be successful," said longtime GOP fundraiser and adviser Fred Malek. "But he didn't say that."
What is downright bewildering to Republicans, however, is what Romney did in response to the clips. When he recognized the danger posed by the video and addressed reporters Monday evening, he only called his remarks "not elegantly stated" and continued to suggest he couldn't appeal to voters who would not benefit from a tax cut under his proposed economic plan.
Asked what sort of candidate would write off such a large swath of voters, former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis shot back: "No one with any political instincts. He needs to be scripted the rest of the campaign. He is a CEO, not a political animal."