There may be room for argument as to whether Romney’s positions are changing. But the emphasis and tone with which he describes them unquestionably are — on issues that include immigration, taxes, education and health care.
On Tuesday, the candidate, who has repeatedly vowed that he would be “a pro-life president,” told the Des Moines Register editorial board that “there’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”
In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, President Obama said the comment was “another example of Governor Romney hiding positions he’s been campaigning on for a year and a half.”
What remains to be seen is which Romney will be judged as the real one by voters. Will they consider his flexibility disturbing evidence that he lacks principles or a reassuring signal that he would not govern as an ideologue?
At a rally in Las Vegas, former president Bill Clinton mocked Romney’s shifts, saying they were evident in last week’s presidential debate, which was almost universally regarded as a win for the Republican.
“I had a different reaction to that first debate than a lot of people did,” he said, laying it on with his buttery Arkansas drawl. “I thought: ‘Wow, here’s old moderate Mitt. Where ya been, boy? I miss you all these last two years.’ ”
Clinton added: “It was like one of these Bain Capital deals, you know, where he’s the closer. So he shows up, doesn’t really know much about the deal and says, ‘Tell me what I’m supposed to say to close.’ Now, the problem with this deal is the deal was made by severe-conservative Mitt.”
Of course, a second-half pivot is a time-honored maneuver in the political playbook. In a primary campaign, a candidate must play to the passions of the base; as he moves toward the general election, the sensibilities of swing voters become paramount.
Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom telegraphed as much in an instantly famous interview on CNN in March, when he said: “I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
But Romney did not begin making those moves until shortly before the first debate, when polls suggested that victory might be slipping out of his reach.
Obama’s campaign strategists say they have suspected all along that Romney would try to disentangle himself from the more strident positions he has taken since starting his first presidential campaign in 2007. That is why they have been keeping a record of them.
“Governor Romney has been catering to the right wing and taking extreme positions for the six years he’s been running for president,” said Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager. “Fortunately, it’s all caught on videotape, so cynically and dishonestly trying to hide those positions in the last 26 days of the campaign won’t work.”