Was Paul Ryan doing a Palin? Could it be that the youthful Republican vice-presidential nominee – he of the choirboy looks, squeaky-clean image and deficit-cutting zealotry – was breaking the shackles of a losing campaign, just as a former governor of Alaska was accused of doing in another struggling Republican campaign, in 2008?
The fuss erupted with a jokey column yesterday by Roger Simon, the excellent columnist of the website Politico, who conjured images of a liberated Ryan referring to his boss as "Stench" – as in "If Stench calls, take a message" or "Tell Stench I'm having finger sandwiches with Peggy Noonan and will text him later." Ms Noonan by the way is a former Reagan speechwriter who now writes for The Wall Street Journal and has been a trenchant critic of Mr Romney.
Mr Simon's flight of fantasy had been in turn inspired by Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa, who told The New York Times at the weekend that if President Obama wins in November, and if Mr Ryan wants to run for national office again, "he'll probably have to wash the stench of Romney off of him."
What spoke volumes though was that the Simon column made a crazy kind of sense. With Republican grandees pouring public scorn on their candidate almost every day, was it really inconceivable that even squeaky-clean Mr Ryan was jumping ship? As the comedian Tom Lehrer once said of the award of the Nobel Peace prize to Henry Kissinger, the bumblings of the Romney campaign might be rendering political satire obsolete.
In fact not. The prime task of a vice presidential nominee is to serve the cause, to rip into the rival campaign in ways that his boss cannot. But on 6 November, Americans will vote for president, not vice-president. Blame for a defeat therefore rests with the former. What would be unforgiveable would be for Mr Ryan to publicly distance himself from Mr Romney, and there is no sign he is doing so.
What is true, however, is the grumbling from the party faithful about Mr Romney's use (or rather non-use) of his running mate on the campaign trail. Mr Ryan generates excitement, and reaches places with ordinary voters his boss can't reach. What is more, Mr Romney seems a livelier, less stilted candidate when Mr Ryan is at his side. This asset, many party strategists argue, must be exploited if the Republican ticket is to make up ground in must-win states in November.
One of them of course is Ohio where the two joined up on the Romney campaign bus on Tuesday – just as a New York Times/CBS poll found the Republican ticket trailing Mr Obama there by 53 per cent to 43 per cent, a margin beyond statistical error. A truism of US presidential politics is that no Republican has won the White House while losing Ohio.
For the record, Mr Robinson, the originator of the stench word, said yesterday that he had been quoted correctly. He was referring however not to Mr Romney in person, but to the problem for his running mate of having been associated with a losing campaign. Which is indeed a problem – but not an insuperable one. Indeed, if the Republicans fail in November, Mr Ryan may yet win credit as having done his best for an unwinnable cause. What would doom his prospects is going rogue. For proof, consider the fate of Sarah Palin.