The whispers began to surface nearly two weeks ago, in this Byron York column:

Mitt Romney is in the race of his life. So why isn’t he running harder?

A look at the Republican presidential candidate’s schedule of public events shows a remarkably relaxed pace for a man who says this election is critical to America’s future.

York went on to list Romney’s recent schedule.  Even though “Barack Obama, when he’s on the trail, usually manages to hold at least two public events each day, and he’s supposed to have a full-time job,” Romney was making only one public appearance a day — or, on some days, none at all.

Then we saw a phase of making excuses:

“We’re going to reach a point here–hopefully soon–where we’ll have the resources we need to carry us through Nov. 6 and we don’t need to be doing those finance events,” Ed Gillespie said on a conference call with reporters.

Some conservatives have criticized Romney’s campaign for spending too much time on the fund-raising circuit, rather than holding campaign events in crucial swing states.

The former Massachusetts governor, for example, spent much of last week raising money in California, Utah and Texas–states not considered up for grabs this fall.

But even with the election barely a month away, the pattern doesn’t seem to be changing:

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are in the midst of a fundraising swing that is taking them to some unexpected locations that appear to have limited electoral significance.

On Thursday, Ryan held back-to-back fundraisers in Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., two cities in a reliably Republican state.

Tomorrow, Romney is set to hold a fundraiser in Philadelphia. A fundraising invitation published by the Sunlight Foundation says that he and Ryan will then meet up in Chestnut Hill, Mass. for two fundraising events. Two days later, Ryan will host two events in Connecticut…

These come on the heels of a fundraiser that Ryan hosted on Sept. 25 in Houston, Texas and a reception that Romney held Sept. 27 in Washington, D.C.

… Certainly, at a time when Romney is trying to present himself as more accessible to voters, and scrambling to erase polling deficits in key swing states, the argument could be made that Romney should focus more closely on those states.

When are people going to start guessing that maybe it’s the other way around, and the Romney campaign (if not the candidate himself) knows exactly what they’re doing with regard to Mitt’s schedule?

I mean, for all the criticism the GOP team has gotten for basing their message entirely on bashing President Obama — in effect, positioning Romney as a generic alternative rather than making a specific case why he should be leading the country — maybe it’s because they know their candidate all too well.

After all, this is the rare presidential nominee who is seen by the opposing campaign as the most effective spokesman for their message, as the latest Obama ad demonstrates:

“… I think this is the first time we’re seeing a candidate saying, ‘Here’s 30 seconds of Mitt Romney telling you why you shouldn’t vote for him,’ ” said Benjamin Bates, a communications professor at Ohio University and an expert on political advertising.

So unlike in a typical campaign — let’s say, Obama’s, for example — you don’t have the brain trust debating, “Where do we send our candidate to appeal to voters in local media, excite the volunteers, and boost our poll numbers?” 

Instead, I have a feeling Team Mitt is looking at the polls where their guy has spent the most time lately, and seeing those numbers go south.  So their thought process is, “Where can we hide him?  Where will he do us the least damage?”  And there’s your explanation for Romney’s unusually light campaign schedule.