By Alexander Bolton - 05/03/12 09:45 AM EDT
Mitt Romney is shifting to the center to attract important voting blocs that he may have alienated in the bruising Republican presidential primary.
Romney has recently sought to ingratiate himself with voters in industry-heavy Ohio, women, Hispanics and college students by softening his tone on a range of issues.
Campaign aides, wary of the flip-flopper label that plagued Romney during the 2008 campaign, dispute that he has reversed any of his positions since the fierce battles of Iowa, South Carolina and Ohio.
“Here’s the situation they find themselves in. Policy is politics, and they have much ground to make up among first- and second-time voters, Hispanics, working-class whites, working-class women. They have to move away from the policy positions they felt they had to take to secure the 2008 nomination and the even more extreme positions they took to win the 2012 nomination,” said John Weaver, a political consultant who worked on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns.
“I guess this is what an Etch A Sketch really looks like,” Weaver said, referring to a Romney staffer’s use of the children’s toy as a metaphor for the campaign’s pivot to the general election.
RESCUING THE U.S. AUTO INDUSTRY
Eric Fehrnstrom, the senior adviser to Romney who made the “Etch A Sketch” remark in March, asserted over the weekend that President Obama had followed Romney’s advice by rescuing General Motors and Chrysler at the start of his term.
The claim left the Obama campaign and other Democrats fuming and pointing to Romney’s 2008 op-ed for The New York Times entitled: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
Romney doubled down with another op-ed published on Feb. 14 in The Detroit News, in the heat of the GOP primary, bashing what he called “an $85 billion sweetheart deal disguised as a rescue plan” and “a major taste of crony capitalism, Obama-style.”
While that stance might have been popular among conservative primary voters, it is much less so among independents, especially in Ohio and other Midwestern battlegrounds.
A Pew Research Center poll released in late February found that 56 percent of the public now sees the bailout of automakers as mostly good for the economy. The Center for Automotive Research estimates the bailout saved 1.4 million jobs, many in the Midwest.
Fehrnstrom recast Romney as the mastermind behind the successful rescue.
“His position on the bailout was exactly what President Obama followed,” Fehrnstrom said. “He said, ‘If you want to save the auto industry, just don’t write them a check. That will seal their doom. What they need to do is go through a managed bankruptcy process.
“The only economic success that President Obama has had is because he followed Mitt Romney’s advice,” he added.
A Romney campaign aide said Obama first tried to throw money at the automakers before requiring them to go through a structured bankruptcy.
The aide said Obama let companies go into managed bankruptcy, the path Romney recommended, only after trying to avoid it in a failed ploy that cost taxpayers billions.
Experts who followed the bailout, however, dispute these claims.
John Austin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution based in Michigan, said Romney’s proposal for the automakers to go through managed bankruptcy would not have been viable without billions of dollars in federal funding.
“Obama said we’re not going to keep throwing money at these car companies,” said Austin. “The decision that was taken was ‘We’re going to put money in and insist they go through rigorous restructuring and fast bankruptcy.’”
Kristin Dziczek, an expert with the Center for Automotive Research, said the Obama administration deemed GM’s and Chrysler’s restructuring plans insufficient in February 2009 and offered structured bankruptcy as the only option to accessing additional government loans.
Steve Rattner, the so-called auto czar who handled the bailout for the Obama administration, said no private investors were willing to supply the necessary funding because the credit markets were frozen. The administration invested $82 billion into the auto companies and is expected to lose $10 billion to $15 billion in the deal.
Romney’s February op-ed in The Detroit News drew stern rebukes from business leaders in the auto industry.
Mike Jackson, chief executive officer of AutoNation Inc., one of the nation’s largest auto dealers, called Romney’s op-ed “truly reckless, detached from reality and dishonest,” according to Bloomberg News. The criticism was especially stinging because Jackson had been a Romney supporter.
The bailout saved tens of thousands of jobs in Ohio, home to more than 350 auto-parts manufacturers and a crucial campaign battleground.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and strategist, said Romney is doing what he needs to win the general election.
“By definition in a general election, you’re appealing to a broader audience than in a primary process,” he said. “You have to address issues of less interest to primary audiences and of more concern to a general election audience and that’s what he’s doing.”
Romney has also sought to airbrush his image among young voters.
At a Feb. 29 campaign event, Romney took a hard line against the federal government subsidizing student loans.
“I wish I could tell you that there’s a place to find really cheap money or free money and we could pay for everyone’s education. That’s just not going to happen,” Romney told a female law student.
“The right course for America is for businesses and universities and colleges to compete for us to make sure we provide loans to the extent we possibly can at an interest rate that doesn’t have the taxpayers having to subsidize people who want to go to school,” he said.
Romney softened his position on student loans last month when he endorsed Obama’s proposal for the federal government to continue subsidizing loans for low- and middle-income students. If Congress does not intervene by July 1, student loan rates will jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8.
Keeping loan rates low, however, will cost taxpayers an estimated $6 billion a year.
A Romney campaign aide disputed that Romney has reversed himself. The staffer noted that Romney has agreed only to support a temporary extension to help students struggling in an economy that he said is suffering because of Obama’s policies.
Ayres, the GOP pollster, said young voters will be much more important in the general election than they were in the primary.
“There are far fewer young people in a Republican primary than in a general election,” he said. “It makes more sense to talk about student loans in a general election.”