A new Washington Post-ABC poll shows Mitt Romney's negatives at a new high. There are plenty of ways to discount this, with the unflattering and tense primary season requiring a lot of negative attacks on Romney or by Romney. Negative ads always rebound in some way to the instigator; and Romney has instigated more than any one else.

However. A more useful exercise would be for Romney to be detached, realistic and self-critical and to learn from what the poll is telling him.

First, he should put the poll under a microscope and see where the negatives are coming from. In the last few weeks the Republican contest has looked ugly, especially to many women. Where does Romney stand with suburban women, working women and young mothers? Treat problems with these groups as urgent. He needs to align his language and his policy positions to be sure he is making a clear case for his candidacy. Don't pretend there is not a tailored approach for or language that is more appealing to these voters. You ignore their perspective at your own peril.

Second, Romney needs to be honest with himself, and, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "this above all, know thine own negative stereotype and learn from it." That is, he is often seen as a rich banker, an unaware, cliché politician with game-show host sincerity and ideologically unreliable. Be aware of this every day. His highest favorable number in the last 18 months has only been 39 percent. He can't win with that number, and there is no short-term fix for a low favorability rating for a non-incumbent.

The one good thing about Rick Santorum lurking around the race is that Romney can begin to offer a contrast with his mercurial, harsh, sometimes hysterical primary opponent. Romney looks better by comparison, but that isn't difficult. It is safe for him to start looking past Santorum and think about his comparison to the current president. As former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour says, "People wish Obama well and he will often get the benefit of the doubt."

The poll has Romney's favorables at 34 percent and Obama's at 53 percent. This matters. People will be more receptive to anything Obama says than almost anything Romney says. Romney may or may not have a honeymoon and a positive reintroduction when he clinches the nomination. But he can't count on that cleansing all the negatives that have settled in.  He needs to start polishing his presentation, humanizing his appeal and let people see him for the good man that he is.

The positive news for Romney is that he is not a good bad guy. He has an optimistic, happy disposition, so nothing about his persona has to be hidden by his campaign. But with the media looking for ways to highlight the negatives and the Democratic machine constantly throwing tacks in his path, it won't be easy to develop a fresh appeal.