Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns in Virginia. (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — As he arrived on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney tried to smooth over a controversy over union and healthcare regulations in Ohio. Rick Perry was busy explaining his comments about President Obama's birth certificate. Herman Cain was still making headlines for a bizarre campaign video.
House Republicans, meanwhile, are increasingly dismayed with the scattershot state of the GOP presidential contest, and its drift away from the theme that many believe is the key to electoral success in 2012: jobs.
Congressional Republicans have their own problems. Their approval rating is about as low as it can go in opinion polls, and for weeks they have struggled to unite on their own jobs message. But their anxiety reached a new peak after an attack-laced GOP presidential debate in Las Vegas last week.
"When I watch it, I wish I could sit them all down and say, 'You need to go watch a video of yourselves. This is not persuasive. It's not going help us win,' " said Rep. Trey Gowdy, a freshman from South Carolina who says he does not plan to endorse a candidate in the primary.
"They've got their own separate ways of doing it," said Rep. Bobby Schilling, diplomatically. The GOP freshman from Illinois is facing one of the toughest reelection fights of any Republican. "We're focused on our own thing."
There's no definitive correlation between a contentious, free-wheeling primary season and trouble in the general election. Democrats demonstrated that in the last cycle, when the drawn-out battle served only to boost interest in the race.
But an extended food fight will shape swing voters' attitudes about each party's priorities and goals. And that could leave Republicans a step behind in addressing the economic downturn most Americans rank as their top concern.
"The challenge for the Republican presidential field is to stay on topic, to let the No. 1 issue be the No. 1 issue," said David Winston, an advisor to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
House Republicans haven't gained much traction on their own. The fights this summer with the White House and Democrats over spending fired up frustrated conservatives, but did little to convince Americans that the GOP was working on job creation.
And the recent conversion to a focus on jobs has not led to legislative breakthroughs. The two parties remain in ideological gridlock over the best economic prescription.
But GOP lawmakers still don't want to be perceived as preoccupied with lesser concerns in the face of a jobs crisis.
So far, the presidential hopefuls have struggled to reassure their congressional colleagues. Romney visited Capitol Hill to tell GOP lawmakers that he is the man with the message to attract independent voters. Along with a major fundraiser, he met with dozens of congressional members still sitting on the fence, all part of an attempt to lock down the political establishment.
Lawmakers have been reluctant to declare their allegiances early, even those who supported the former Massachusetts governor in the past. He has endured a ho-hum reception from the conservative grass-roots and a persistent search for an alternative.
On Wednesday, Republican congressional members directed a barrage of pointed questions at the candidate, asking about his evolution on abortion, his position on gay marriage, Iraq and Afghanistan — and his message on the economy, according to lawmakers who attended.
"Gov. Romney is a conservative businessman who is focused on getting Americans back to work and reviving this economy," said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "It's the reason he is compelled to be in the race and what he talks about on a daily basis as he works to earn every vote."
Romney counts nearly 30 endorsements out of 242 House Republicans and the support of four GOP senators. That tally far outpaces his rivals, including Perry and Cain, who members say have not been nearly as aggressive in trying to attract elected officials.
Meanwhile, an odd Cain campaign video was getting regular play on cable news networks. The video shows a close-up of Cain's chief of staff, Mark Block, talking about the importance of the campaign as he smokes a cigarette.
Perry launched his first television advertisement Wednesday, boasting of his jobs record. But Perry also spent a third day clarifying that he was kidding when he said he had doubts about the president's birth certificate.
Republican lawmakers watched and waited, eager for the subject to change — to jobs and the economy.
"I just think they're ready to move on to the next phase," said Rep. Steve Southerland, a freshman from Florida. "I'm ready."
Kim Geiger in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.