Romney moves to center, shows new ease on campaign trail

Mitt Romney has taken a more centrist stance on the campaign trail recently, a move that coincides with the GOP nominee giving speeches that are more personal in nature and showing a new-found confidence to voters.

Confusion over Romney's stance on abortion, which the candidate clarified during a stop at an Ohio restaurant — joined recent moves on immigration, financial reform, tax policies and healthcare toward the center, a more natural habitat for the former Massachusetts governor.

The move to the middle has had a twofold effect for Romney: first, it puts President Obama on his heels by thwarting planned attack lines designed to make Romney's policies look unreasonable and far-right, and second, it gives the Republican nominee more leash than he had during the GOP primary, where questioning conservative dogma could have proven fatal to Romney's campaign.

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And it’s a message that has appeal to independent and swing voters who could decide the election.

But it also has its dangers, leaving Romney open to charges of flip-flopping. Democrats have already begun previewing attack lines that could show up in Romney’s next debate with Obama.

The GOP nominee, however, appears much more comfortable in this role.

Romney's new ease has been apparent during his recent campaign swing through Ohio, with the candidate telling jokes on the stump, speaking passionately about some of his life experiences — including, on Wednesday, his wife Ann's brush with breast cancer — and generally seeming far more invigorated than just a week before.

The GOP nominee has handed out hamburgers to his traveling press corps, pulled his motorcade over at a school to chat with students, sat down at restaurants to talk to voters, and generally shown a new confidence on the campaign trail.

Some of that ease is undoubtedly thanks to his confidence-building victory in last week’s debate, and a recent surge in the polls that has shown Romney pull to a national lead for the first time since clinching the nomination.

“There’s nothing more satisfying in politics than winning a debate, apart from winning an election,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “He really overcame some low expectations, and really preformed in a high pressure environment — just a tremendously personally satisfying experience. It’s picked up his spirits, his morale, his energy level, and has made a tremendous difference for his campaign.”

But Romney is also returning to the campaign identity that helped him win the governor’s office in heavily-Democratic Massachusetts.

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell says Romney is now finding traction by presenting himself as “principled, but practical and willing to work across party lines.”

“He’s trying to address the middle by giving a little bit of wiggle room on things that are seen as conservative issues,” O’Connell said. “Conservatives want to see Barack Obama out. And as such, they’re going to give him the leeway to throw the kitchen sink at the president as long as he doesn’t give the farm away. “

The consensus among conservatives is that it’s important enough to replace Obama that they can be forgiving on minor centrist shifts, with the hope that a conservative Congress would keep a President Romney in check.

Romney has taken advantage of that freedom in recent weeks, signaling shifts on a bouquet of issues to improve his prospects with swing voters:

Abortion. In an interview with the Des Moines Register on Tuesday, Romney said there was “no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda,” a comment seized on by Democrats who accused Romney of attempting to obfuscate the hard-line anti-abortion-rights stance he had taken during the Republican primary. By Wednesday, Romney said he was “a pro-life candidate” and that he would reinstate the Mexico City policy and remove all federal funding for Planned Parenthood; conservative leaders rallied to his defense.

Immigration. Last week, Romney announced that he would not revoke deportation visas granted under the president’s program that shielded some illegal immigrants who came to the United States when they were children, telling the Denver Post he wasn’t “going to take something that they've purchased.”

Financial reform. During Wednesday’s debate, Romney repeated attacks on the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation as harmful to the economy, but also said some parts “make all the sense in the world,” and said he would replace the bill with new reforms. Romney had previously railed against Dodd-Frank without emphasizing to the same extent his belief that leverage limits and greater transparency requirements should remain.

Healthcare. In Romney’s debate on Wednesday, he argued “pre-existing conditions are covered under my [health care] plan.” In fact, Romney’s plan would not guarantee individuals with pre-existing conditions who did not have health coverage, or allowed it to lapse, would be able to get insurance — a point corrected after the debate by his own campaign. Romney also argued late Tuesday night that his Massachusetts healthcare plan, which he has insisted he would not implement on a federal level, was proof of his “empathy.”

Tax plan. Obama has challenged Romney’s pledges of a 20 percent reduction on taxes across the board, protection of effective tax rates on the middle class, and a plan that is deficit neutral, arguing that the Republican nominee can’t make the math add up. Romney has said he could by limiting deductions for the wealthiest Americans — an idea that could raise effective rates on the rich.

Democrats believe Romney’s new centrist lean is ripe for the attack, arguing that the Republican nominee is “Etch A Sketching” the positions he carved out during the GOP primary.

“Here’s old moderate Mitt,” former President Clinton said during a campaign stop Tuesday in Nevada. “Where have you been, boy? I missed you all these last few years.”

“The problem with this deal is the deal was made by ‘severe conservative’ Mitt. That was how he described himself for two whole years,” Clinton continued.

Obama has also joked at recent campaign stops that he didn’t recognize the “spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney” at the debate last week.

But Republicans defended Romney, saying his apparent rhetorical shifts represented a tailoring of messaging to independent and swing voters rather than a change in position.

“He’s getting better at sensing what works and what doesn’t, and is tapping into a deeper sense of who he is and how to reflect it,” said Mackowiak. “As you get down to an election, you have to move a little to the middle, and he’s choosing his spots to do that.”