"He's pretty well screwed," said one prominent GOP consultant. "People are definitely fishing for another candidate. It's pretty brutal."
Other Republicans acknowledge concerns but say it's too early for the panic being expressed, with time for Corbett to turn around his fortunes with better messaging and a well-played campaign.
Most interviewed last week discussed the rumblings and Corbett's electoral prospects on condition of anonymity because Corbett is known to be obsessive about news leaks, and the wrath of a sitting governor can be hazardous to one's career.
On Wednesday, Corbett brought in veteran strategist and fund-raiser Leslie Gromis-Baker as his new chief of staff, at the urging of major backers concerned that the governor failed to win approval of any of his top three policy initiatives before the legislature broke for the summer. More broadly, these people said Corbett advisers had shown a lack of political skill in selling the governor's accomplishments.
Gromis-Baker is Corbett's third chief of staff since he took office in January 2011. She replaces Steve Aichele, who had been head of the Philadelphia law firm Saul Ewing.
The arrival of Gromis-Baker, a top aide to former Gov. Tom Ridge, is as strong an indication as any that party leaders, at least for now, are committed to helping Corbett turn his fortunes around. If that were not true, they would not have recommended the governor hire someone with Gromis-Baker's clout, network of relationships, and political savvy.
"The governor is not going to withdraw," said a senior Republican, adding that Corbett in recent conversations has expressed optimism about his prospects. "Like any successful politician, he has a scenario in his mind about how he is going to win. Tom Corbett believes."
For one thing, at least half a dozen Democrats are fighting for the nomination to challenge Corbett, and a messy, expensive primary likely would weaken the winner. Corbett could have as much as $30 million, thanks in part to the state's lack of fund-raising caps.
Several GOP sources said Corbett's fund-raising has been steady, with no sign as yet of donor flight. Gromis-Baker, moreover, is considered expert at calming jittery donors.
Drew Crompton, counsel and chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), said bringing in Gromis-Baker was a smart move.
"She's a seasoned veteran and has a lot of political savvy," Crompton said. "Without being disparaging to those who previously held the office, it's probably the type of pick that should have occurred early on."
As for the polls, a close adviser to Corbett said they only provided a snapshot of what people think of the chief executive of a state still emerging from the recession. It will be a different matter once there is a flesh-and-blood opponent, the adviser said.
"Any candidates who run will be under the kind of scrutiny that they aren't under now," he said. "And once the attention shifts, and someone else's record is being dissected, it's a different ball game."
Bringing in Gromis-Baker will help, but this adviser noted that Corbett could be stubborn and has been known to ignore well-meaning advice.
"But I don't think he has that luxury anymore," the adviser said. "He's already lost a lot of time."
Corbett has had a stunning fall from grace after his relative cakewalk in 2010. It was a Republican year, Corbett was a well-liked, corruption-busting attorney general, and voters appeared to be looking for a less colorful personality after eight years of Gov. Ed Rendell.
Now, most independent polls show that only about a third of registered voters approve of the way he is handling his job, and small majorities agree that he does not deserve a second term.
Speculation about a replacement for Corbett centers on U.S. Reps. Jim Gerlach and Pat Meehan of suburban Philadelphia, and Mike Kelly of Erie, as well as Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County. Gerlach and Meehan ran for governor in 2010 but dropped out when it became clear the party was coalescing around Corbett.
None of the men has taken any concrete steps to run, Republicans say.
Another Corbett intimate said there was no doubt the governor would be running but acknowledged his friend was at a crossroads and needed to show the public his true personality.
"He doesn't understand retail politics," this source said. "It's nice to take the moralistic high road and say, 'I am doing what I said I was going to do, and if people don't like it, there's nothing I can do,' " said the adviser. "I don't accept that, and neither should the people around him. You can still do what you said you were going to do, but market it better."
Veteran GOP consultant Charlie Gerow, based in Harrisburg, dismissed the dump-Corbett chatter as routine political speculation that often happens near the end of a governor's first term.
"There's always a flurry of 'what-ifs' in our business," Gerow said. "People build scenarios all the time, about everything. That doesn't mean they're real."
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.inquirer.com/bigtent.