WASHINGTON — Republican pollster Whit Ayres wants conservative GOP primary voters to put themselves in the place of a  young woman with several eager suitors, and a cranky father.

In this case, Dad is the GOP establishment, and he has a few pointers for his free-spirited daughter, Ayres said during a panel discussion on the state of the presidential race. It was moderated Tuesday by National Journal political analyst Charlie Cook.

“‘What is your problem? Marry the guy!” Ayres exclaimed, acting as the hypothetical father. “And she says, ‘But, Dad, he’s boring! And I don’t love him.’”

Although the three panelists, including Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux, agreed that Mitt Romney will eventually capture the nomination, they said the road for him will continue  to be bumpy and unpredictable.

“It’s kind of like reading a novel, and you’ve kind of figured out what the ending is,” Cook said. “But every chapter you go, every page you turn, there’s all kind of weird stuff.”

For Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research, the father-daughter simile sums up Romney’s dilemma: Failing to fire up the Republican base but proving more electable than his three competitors, all of whom at one time have experienced their own surge in the GOP primary.

As of Tuesday morning, Rick Santorum led Romney 30.2 percent to 28.6 percent in RealClearPolitics’ national polling average.

Despite Santorum’s recent move to the front of the pack, Ayres said he still would not be making any “firm predictions on which way” the conservative electorate is leaning. Those voters will have to “learn to love” the party’s eventual nominee, Ayres added.

In Ayres’ extended metaphor, the cranky father sits down his daughter and breaks the same news to her.

“And about that time, Mitt comes up to take her on a date in a minivan, and she looks at her dad and goes” — Ayres bobbles his head in disgust — “And then Newt roars up on a Harley Davidson. And she goes, ‘Oh, that kind of looks like fun.’ And there’s this guy from the seminary who walks up in a sweater vest and knocks on the door and says, ‘Hi, I’m Rick. Do you want to go for a walk?'”

Cook was more decisive, saying Romney will outlast Santorum, as well as Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, with superior organization and fundraising.

However, the former Massachusetts governor will have to be careful about pandering to the far right to win the GOP nomination — what Cook called putting himself “so far out of position that it makes the general election proposition harder.”

Molyneux cast doubt on any GOP contender’s chances of ousting President Barack Obama, citing improving economic conditions that strengthen Obama’s case for re-election. As the unemployment rate declines, November’s election will be more about the next eight months than the past three years, Molyneux said.

Yet both Molyneux and Ayres agreed Obama would most likely lose a referendum hinging solely on his first-term accomplishments, if votes were tallied tomorrow.

The panelists also touched on the political implications of requiring religious institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health insurance plans.

Over the weekend, Obama tweaked the controversial mandate, requiring insurers instead of religious groups to pay for workers’ birth control.

Molyneux said it will be difficult for Republicans to turn the fiasco into an issue of religious liberty when the president was simply aiming to make a popular product widely available.

“I think Republicans are heading into a blind alley here, of getting on the wrong side of contraception,” he said. “And there is not a division of opinion in this country about contraception.”

Ayres brushed off Molyneux’s premise, calling the contraceptive controversy a “value issue” that will etch the contours of an election centered on fiscal responsibility.

“This election, come fall, is going to be about economy, jobs, spending, debt, economy, jobs, spending, debt,” Ayres said. “…Ultimately, those issues are going to dominate the electorate, but you’ve got this underlying value issue where the White House seems out of touch, I think, with the vast majority of Americans.”

A Fox News poll conducted Feb. 6 through Thursday showed 61 percent of Americans approve of the birth control coverage requirement, with 34 percent not in favor.