LAS VEGAS -- Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney failed to offer a vision that connected with everyday Americans, failed to respond to an early and ultimately successful attempt to define him as an out-of-touch corporate raider, and failed to portray his party as anything other than the party for rich white males -- at least according to some of the prominent Republicans who served as his top surrogates just a few weeks ago.
Romney's campaign came in for a series of tongue-lashings at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association, where two dozen state chief executives hobnobbed with big-dollar donors and swapped notes on what they called a disappointing election cycle. And as several among their ranks privately ponder their own potential presidential campaigns four years down the line, they said there are lessons to be learned from this year's GOP shortcomings.
"We need to have a brutally honest assessment of what we did," said Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Republican uber-strategist. His party's entire political operation, Barbour said, needs "a very serious proctology exam."
Republicans acknowledged that President Obama's campaign used the summer months to effectively define Romney as a heartless and out-of-touch businessman who didn't care about what he himself termed the 47 percent of Americans looking for handouts. And even after a strong debate performance, Romney wasn't able to overcome that early definition.
"Our candidate got defined early without an effective response," said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
The Obama campaign spent tens of millions of dollars over the summer on negative advertising as Romney, his funds depleted after a bruising Republican primary, spent his time collecting checks, rather than firing back. And while outside groups that backed the Republican nominee spent big money on advertisements blasting the Obama administration, Romney never made the positive case for himself.
"What [the American people] heard is, we are a party that cares more about people that have already lived the American Dream and made it, as opposed to the rest of the country that is still trying to climb that ladder," said Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia and outgoing RGA chairman. "That's not our position. We honestly did not do a good job saying why those principles of limited government and lower taxes and individual responsibility and energy independence, et cetera, why is that better for every American family."
What's more, Romney never got the chance -- or took the opportunity -- to offer what George H.W. Bush once famously called "the vision thing," several governors said.
"The honest truth is, look, Governor Romney's campaign I don't think laid out a specific vision that connected with American voters. Governor Romney is an honorable person, and he should be thanked for his many years of public service, but his campaign was largely about his biography and his experience," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. "But time and time again, biography and experience are not enough to win an election. You have to have a vision; you have to connect your policies to the aspirations of the American people. I don't think the campaign did that. As a result, I think this campaign became a contest about personalities."
Several Republicans at the meeting credited the Obama campaign's relentless focus on a turnout operation that drove hundreds of thousands of new voters to the polls. "We can catch up in four years," Barbour told donors. "We can't wait and start in 2016."
The comments came the same day Romney himself attributed Obama's win to policy "gifts" the president gave specific interest groups, "especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and young people," Romney said, according to The New York Times. Republican governors, who spent the day considering how to reach out beyond their current coalition to attract more minorities, did not share that assessment.
"That is absolutely wrong," Jindal said at a press conference. "We need to go after 100 percent of the votes, not 53 percent. We need to go after every single vote."
The governors didn't pin the blame solely on Romney. They painted a picture of a campaign on the ascent after a strong performance in the first debate of the season, leading in swing state and national polling. That momentum, they said, was brought to a screeching halt when superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, effectively freezing the race in place.
Most polling conducted even before the storm showed Obama leading critical swing states, however, and party strategists attending the meeting said they believed the impact of the storm was being overstated. They did not say the same for the governors' assessment of Romney's campaign.