Mitt Romney and his top aides are running an essentially faith-based campaign. Whatever the polls say at the moment, whatever the pundits say, whatever some nervous Republicans say, Team Romney simply does not believe President Obama can win re-election in today's terrible economy. The president may appear to be defying gravity now, but he can't keep it up through Nov. 6.
"While some voters will feel a bit of a sugar-high from the conventions, the basic structure of the race has not changed significantly," Romney pollster Neil Newhouse wrote Monday, as some Republicans approached a state of panic over President Obama's post-convention bounce. "The reality of the Obama economy will reassert itself as the ultimate downfall of the Obama Presidency, and Mitt Romney will win this race."
The next few days are going to try Romney's patience and determination. The media is focusing incessantly on Obama's relatively small move upward in the polls, with some of the coverage bordering on outright celebration. That, in turn, is spooking some already anxious Romney supporters who fear that Romney is going about it all wrong. They'll offer lots of advice: Be tougher about this, more assertive about that, showcase this issue, downplay that one. Romney's belief in the wisdom of his course will be put to the test.
Meanwhile, Republican nervousness is spreading and threatens to turn into a stampede. For months, GOP strategists have told themselves that no president since World War II has been re-elected with an unemployment rate above 7.2 percent. But some are beginning to wonder: What if Obama can do it?
In addition, many insiders are citing the fact that in past presidential races, the leader in mid-September usually went on to win in November. Nobody needs reminding that mid-September is just days away.
Team Romney saw Obama's speech at the Democratic convention as an exercise in emptiness. The president accepted his party's nomination at a time with the highest rate of unemployment since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they note, and he didn't deal in any substantial way with unemployment. How can he get away with that?
Meanwhile, there's a lot of second-guessing among Washington-based Republicans. For example, why in the world did Romney go on "Meet the Press" on Sunday? What did he expect to gain from it? Instead of any expected benefit, most of the news coverage focused on Romney's statement that there are features of Obamacare that will also be in his own health care plan. It wasn't news -- Romney has said that before -- but it generated lots of headlines like "Romney would keep parts of 'Obamacare.' " That was entirely off-message for a candidate who daily promises to repeal Obamacare.
Other conservatives accuse Romney of retreating from the boldness he showed by picking Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. After a brief stretch of a broader, more energized campaign, they say, Romney has reverted to his natural cautiousness, and the campaign is slowing down as a result.
"I thought the Ryan choice was a clear announcement of a new strategy," says one well-connected Republican not associated with the campaign. "But what seems to have happened is the campaign has drifted back to the position that this is just a referendum on Barack Obama. At some point, you have to earn the presidency."
Romney aides grumble about the criticism. Some of the doubters have all sorts of motivations, they note, like raising their professional standing or visibility in the media. Romney, on the other hand, has just one motive, which is to win the election. But here is Romney's practical problem with his Republican critics: They may be right. Or they may be wrong. Romney has to decide, and he has to live with the consequences of his decision.
This is a true test of Romney's resolve. He's like the pilot of a plane rolling down the runway for takeoff. There's a tree line at the end of the runway that he has to clear. He's sure he'll make it. He's gaining speed, getting some lift, but he's still not high enough, and at about three-quarters down the runway, a lot of passengers are getting scared. Does Romney keep going according to plan, confident he'll clear the trees when the time comes? Or does he try some last-minute maneuver?
Romney is an experienced leader, with an executive sensibility to the core. But he's never had to make a decision like this.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.