WASHINGTON – It's not a happy time for Republicans seeking the White House.
On the eve of key Super Tuesday contests, they find themselves on the defensive over birth control, embarrassed by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and tripped up by subjects bearing little relation to the day-to-day concerns of Americans. All the while, President Barack Obama's ratings are climbing.
There's still a long way ahead, for sure, but this isn't how GOP leaders had pictured things.
Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment about saying no evil about a fellow Republican is in shreds in what's become a scorched-earth primary contest.
Contenders for the GOP nomination are trying to win the White House with a gloomy economic message, while Obama seeks to project reassuring optimism amid fresh signs of a growing — if still fragile — economy.
Some GOP pundits seem to be already bracing for an Obama re-election victory, even though Election Day is still eight months off.
Conservative columnist George Will has raised the specter of a repeat of the 1964 race, when "conservatives got their way" and the GOP chose Barry Goldwater as its nominee. He lost in a landslide to incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In a weekend column, Will wrote that neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum — the two leading GOP contenders — "seems likely to be elected." Instead, he suggests that conservatives focus more energy on retaking control of the Senate and retaining the GOP majority in the House.
Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, recently wrote that "the Republican nominee will emerge so bloodied his victory will hardly be worth having; the Republicans are delving into areas so extreme and so off point that by the end Mr. Obama will look like the moderate."
Veteran GOP consultant Charles Black, a top political aide to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and now a Romney backer, said current GOP expressions of frustration are standard fare for when "a competitive primary race is going, when the negatives for your candidate are being highlighted, and when the other party's nominee is getting a free ride."
"For anybody on any side to throw in the towel now, they're going against both data and history," Black said.
Super Tuesday, when 10 states vote, could scramble the deck again, but for now Romney and Santorum are running far ahead of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — both in poll ratings and in the battle for delegates to the national GOP convention. There also is growing consensus among Republican insiders that Romney eventually will prevail and clinch the nomination.
A new poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center suggested the brutal GOP nomination battle is helping Obama solidify support among Democrats. The survey found 49 percent of Democrats say that as they learn more about the GOP candidates, their impression of Obama is getting better — up from 36 percent in December. Just 26 percent of Republicans say their impression of the GOP field has improved as they have learned more about the candidates, largely unchanged since December.
Obama's GOP rivals have hit many potholes in this contest.
Santorum got tripped up by suggesting that John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech in Houston on the separation of church and state makes him want to "throw up," and for making birth control a central campaign issue when polls show most Americans are more concerned about issues like the economy and jobs.
And Romney, who many Republicans view as too moderate, keeps putting his foot in his mouth by saying things that unintentionally point to his enormous personal wealth and suggest that his world is vastly different from that of ordinary Americans, especially when he talks about money and cars.
Added to all this was Limbaugh's recent branding of a Georgetown University law school student as a "slut" and "a prostitute" for publicly advocating mandatory contraceptive insurance coverage for women. With advertisers fleeing, Limbaugh issued a public apology over the weekend. He apologized again, on the air, on Monday.
Despite the apology, widespread outrage for the remarks remained, and sent GOP leaders scrambling to insist that Limbaugh was an "entertainer" — and not a GOP official or leader, as Democrats take glee in implying.
It was just one more headache Republicans certainly didn't need.
"People may be disappointed in the fact that Romney didn't put this together sooner," said GOP consultant Rich Galen. But, he added, it's only the first week of March.
Galen, who once worked as a Gingrich aide but is on the sidelines in the presidential race, suggested that current GOP anxiety "is expressing itself now, but once we settle on a nominee, I think we'll get back in line."
As to Reagan's 11th Commandment that Republican candidates not speak badly of one another? It certainly isn't in effect this election cycle.
But then it wasn't in most of the previous Republican primary seasons, either. In fact Reagan quickly broke it himself when he blasted incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976 for moving to give the Panama Canal to Panama. Almost every GOP primary since then has seen harsh words spoken by GOP rivals about another.
Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster who worked for President Bill Clinton, said Santorum and Romney "have both failed to talk about the bread-and-butter issues that affect the American people."
Still, Schoen said Obama's team shouldn't breathe easy just yet — since recent polls show the president holds a narrow single-digit lead over Romney as the prospective GOP nominee. Schoen also said some polls suggest "that a majority of Americans, a narrow majority, would like to see another president."
Follow Tom Raum on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tomraum