MANSFIELD, Ohio — A feisty Mitt Romney returned to the campaign trail here Monday with sharp new attacks against President Obama over cuts to the defense budget and the stubborn unemployment rate in a deliberate effort to win over moderate voters.
But even as Romney tries to regain ground lost to Obama coming out of both parties’ political conventions, the Republican nominee sounded calls that seemed designed instead to excite the religious right and stoke the culture wars.
“When and if I become president of the United States, I will not take God out of my heart, I will not take God out of the public square and I will not take it out of the platform of my party,” Romney said, repeating a line he began using over the weekend and drawing hearty applause at a rally in this town a little over an hour’s drive northeast of Columbus.
With Obama opening a lead over Romney in the final two months of the long — and long-deadlocked — presidential race, Romney is trying at once to appeal to the nation’s moderate middle and to stir the passions of his more strident conservative base.
On Friday, Romney campaigned alongside one of Washington’s most conservative firebrands, Rep. Steve King, in King’s staunchly evangelical Iowa district.
“I want him as my partner in Washington,” Romney said.
The next day, Romney addressed a Virginia Beach rally just moments after Pat Robertson, the venerable and sometimes inflammatory televangelist, took a turn onstage. The Obama campaign said Romney was “pandering to the most extreme voices in his party.”
Yet there Romney was Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” praising Democratic former president Bill Clinton and sounding a softer, more conciliatory tone on the issue of health care. Although he said he would work to repeal “Obamacare,” Romney said there were aspects of Obama’s health-care overhaul that he would keep, such as ensuring that people with preexisting conditions have access to health insurance coverage.
And here in Ohio on Monday, Romney seized on the looming cuts to the nation’s defense budget — which he said would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and endanger national security — and on poor economic indicators, such as the unemployment rate and the rising number of Americans on food stamps, to sow doubts about Obama among undecided voters.
“ ‘Forward’ is his campaign slogan,” Romney said at a rally inside a Mansfield factory. “I think ‘forewarned’ is a better term. We know what would happen if he were reelected. We’d see more years of unemployment.”
Romney said Obama, who spoke extensively in his convention speech about what he has done to help middle-class families struggling through the economic recession, did not talk specifically about the unemployment rate, which stands at 8.1 percent, or the 47 million Americans now on food stamps.
“These are not numbers, or people, he spoke about during his convention speech,” Romney said.
A man in the crowd shouted out, “It’s not Bush’s fault,” to which Romney responded, “Yeah.”
“Not only did [Obama] not mention these people, he did not mention what he was going to do to help people get back to work,” Romney continued. “He does not have a plan.”
Later, addressing an overflow crowd in Mansfield, Romney asked supporters, “You remember at his convention four years ago that [Obama] was going to slow the rise of the oceans and he was going to also heal the planet? Well, I’m here to heal the American people, to help the American people, to help them to get good jobs. . . . I want to help more people to fulfill their dreams and build great enterprises and put people to work. And I want to heal our economy.”
Campaign advisers said Romney talked about defense cuts and economic data specifically to appeal to amenable voters.
“Coming out of the convention, our job is to persuade the last group of voters that haven’t made up their mind that Mitt Romney has a better plan than Barack Obama to fix the economy,” adviser Kevin Madden said.
Madden added that defense cuts are “not partisan” and Romney’s comments on the economy are “designed to talk to voters that are Republicans who disagree with the president’s policies, independents who are still making up their minds and are very anxious about the state of the economy, and Democrats who may have been inclined to support Obama in 2008 but feel that the economy’s not going in the right direction now.”
Terry Holt, a top aide on George W. Bush’s campaigns, said this is a natural strategy for Romney.
“As the nominee with the support of his base,” Holt said, “he is in a good position to move to the next phase: being the credible — and safe — alternative to the incumbent among undecideds and soft Obama supporters.”
The latest polls, however, suggest Romney has a lot of work to do to win some of these voters. Obama emerged from his convention last week in Charlotte with a clear advantage over Romney. In a memorandum Monday designed to quiet any panic among supporters, Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster and senior strategist, acknowledged Obama’s “bounce” but argued that Romney has a long-term advantage over the president.
“Don’t get too worked up about the latest polling,” Newhouse wrote. “While some voters will feel a bit of a sugar-high from the conventions, the basic structure of the race has not changed. The reality of the Obama economy will reassert itself as the ultimate downfall of the Obama Presidency, and Mitt Romney will win this race.”