Romney suits up for November election battle with President Obama

Mitt Romney’s campaign has shaken the Etch A Sketch, left behind the Republican primary and moved onto a general-election footing.

The candidate does not like the Etch A Sketch metaphor, which first surfaced in an ill-advised comment by an adviser during a CNN interview that raised questions about Romney’s fealty to conservative principles. 

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But when it comes to moving his fire from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to President Obama — and to presenting himself primarily as a president-in-waiting rather than a tribune of the conservative grass roots — many GOP insiders feel he has managed the transition well.

In doing so, he has bolstered their confidence that he can beat Obama.

“In the past couple of weeks, he has been going more and more directly after Barack Obama,” said Dan Judy, vice president of the Republican firm North Star Opinion Research. “He has transitioned smoothly into a general election, and it will be like that from now until November.”

No single change has marked Romney’s shift in recent weeks. Instead, a series of readjustments have, in aggregate, solidified the sense that he is now fully engaged in the contest against the incumbent chief executive.


Out have gone the lavishly funded attack ads on his GOP rivals. In have come daily assaults on Obama’s record and a much more intensive attempt to “counterprogram” the president. Romney visited Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday to offer a “pre-buttal” to arguments Obama is likely to make when he goes to the state next week. (Charlotte, importantly, will also be the location of the Democratic National Convention this summer.)

Out have gone appeals to the right of the GOP in which Romney claims to be a more “true conservative” than figures such as Santorum and Gingrich. In have come references to the need for Republicans to broaden their appeal to more than the “true believers” who watch Fox News.

And, in a move that has more than merely superficial significance, out have gone the candidate’s denim jeans and open-necked shirts — presumably intended to connote ordinary-guy charm during the primary — and in have come suits, ties and snowy white shirts that might lack the common touch but impart a presidential aura.

The sartorial choices could also carry an additional advantage for the businessman and former Massachusetts governor; they may well represent a more authentic version of his identity than the one he sought to present during the long slog through the primaries.

“This is a guy who has been part of the business world his whole life. He is comfortable in a suit and tie,” Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson told The Hill. “And there are two parts to that. Firstly, I always tell candidates, you better be who you really are, because if you’re not, voters can smell it. And secondly, there are just a lot more things Romney will be doing now where he will want to look presidential.”

Other insiders made a similar, and broader, point. Romney, they said, might actually be more comfortable in appealing to the independent-minded, persuadable voters who decide the outcome of presidential elections than he was trying to win staunch conservatives over to his side.

“If you look at this electoral history, seeking [support] from independent voters is something he is very comfortable with, because he has done it before, winning in Massachusetts,” said strategist Matt Mackowiak.

This effort extends to policy, too. At the same closed-door fundraiser on Sunday at which Romney asserted the need to extend the GOP’s appeal beyond “true believers,” he also emphasized the importance of attracting Hispanic voters. One way to do so, he suggested, would be to push for a “Republican DREAM Act,” a reference to a bill Democrats have proposed that would provide young illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship under certain limited circumstances. 

On Wednesday, Romney’s campaign said he would “study and consider” legislation on the matter that is currently being put together by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), among others. Rubio, in turn, is among the front-runners to fill the vice presidential slot on Romney’s ticket.

Still, at the same time Romney appeals to the center, he has sought to give committed conservatives no reason to feel abandoned by him. Last Friday, he delivered a speech to the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association in which he emphasized his commitment to preserving the rights of gun owners. On Thursday, Liberty University, the evangelical college founded by the late Jerry Falwell, announced that Romney would deliver its commencement address on May 12.

Keeping the base on board has another advantage: It helps facilitate fundraising on the vast scale likely to be necessary to compete effectively with Obama. The rumor in Republican circles is that Romney is already performing well in this area.

Wilson claimed that “the story you’re not seeing is the phenomenal amount of money they’re raising. And that’s important because this campaign is going to cost a lot of money.”

The most important thing Romney has done, insiders say, is turn all his fire on Obama and letting the remaining Republican challengers, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, fade ever more deeply into insignificance.

It’s a focus, Mackowiak argues, that Romney needs to maintain with all his might if he is to prevail in November.

“The central challenge will be keeping the focus on Obama,” he said. “If Obama and his team are allowed to make it a choice, to talk about how Romney is ‘super-rich’ or whatever, that is where it becomes more worrying for Republicans.”