Romney sets out to frame campaign themes with weekly speeches

Mitt Romney has begun delivering a series of weekly policy speeches aimed at outlining his proposals and drawing contrasts with President Obama on issues from education and health care to energy and debt.

The speeches are part of an effort by Romney’s advisers to use the months before August’s Republican National Convention to help introduce the all-but-certain GOP presidential nominee to a general-election audience and to lay a foundation to debate policy differences with Obama. The speeches also give Romney a platform to test ways to articulate the country’s problems and his proposed solutions.

For undecided voters, the speeches could open a window into what kind of Republican Romney is and what kind of president he wants to be. For conservatives — some of whom are skeptical of Romney’s dedication to the cause, even if they now support him — the speeches may reveal whether he will stay true to the beliefs he laid out during the primaries or, to use a metaphor introduced by one of his advisers, shake things up like an Etch a Sketch.

If Romney’s goal during the primary season was to keep from being pinned down on too many policy specifics to preserve wiggle room for the general-election campaign, he largely succeeded.

Education, for instance, was a nonissue in the primaries, and Romney said little about the subject except to advocate for more school choice and oppose teachers unions. But he announced a slate of education policy advisers Tuesday, including former education secretary Rod Paige and other appointees from President George W. Bush’s administration, and he plans to deliver an education policy address Wednesday at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

On health care, Romney has pledged that, on his first day in office, he would begin repealing the law that he and other Republicans call “Obamacare,” but he has not fully detailed what he would seek to replace it with.

“Primaries are the season of sound bites and dramas large and small, but as we move toward the general election, it’s crucial for the presumptive nominee to put meat on the bones, to fill out the profile and give the voter a deeper understanding of what the campaign is about,” said Terry Holt, who was a top official in Bush’s campaigns.

Romney’s speeches come as Obama tries to define his Republican challenger in a negative light by highlighting job losses incurred under Romney’s watch as a founder of a corporate buyout firm, Bain Capital, and as Romney offers himself as a problem-solver with the business acumen necessary to jump-start the economy.

In each of his weekly addresses, Romney has tried to draw connections from the subject at hand to his core economic argument.

“It all intersects with the economy,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. “Obviously Governor Romney has made it clear throughout this campaign that his focus is on jobs and the economy, and now that we’re in the general election, he can more clearly lay out the different aspects of the economy as far as what his vision is and how he would approach those issues should he be president.”

Earlier this month, Romney delivered speeches on entre­pre­neur­ship in Lansing, Mich., and on the federal debt in Des Moines. He will focus on education this week and turn to energy next week. Aides are planning to spotlight health care early next month, pegged to a likely ruling by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Obama’s overhaul.

Unlike most of Romney’s remarks on the campaign trail, these speeches are formal affairs. They are the products of hours of fine-tuning with speechwriters and policy advisers, and Romney delivers them with the aid of teleprompters, sometimes against grand backdrops crafted to make the candidate appear presidential.

But Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist, argued that Romney’s speeches have made very little impact.

“They get dutifully reported, and then they just die away,” said Shrum, who was a senior adviser to Democratic presidential nominees Al Gore in 2000 and John F. Kerry in 2004. “I suspect that most mainstream voters don’t even know about them. . . . He’s not saying anything that much interests people or grabs their attention yet, and he’s not an interesting sayer of it.”

Saul defended the speeches as substantive and important ways for Romney to drive home his message. “He has real plans to tackle these important issues,” she said. “Each week we’re focusing on a different aspect of those plans.”

So far, however, Romney’s addresses have offered only a peek at his plans. They are heavy on rhetoric about how he thinks Obama’s policies have failed, and although he touches on typical Republican approaches, Romney has stopped short of presenting big, innovative ideas that could define his candidacy.

In his debt speech last week in Iowa, Romney used provocative rhetoric — some advisers referred to it as “beautiful” and “poetic” — to describe the country’s worsening debt problem. “A prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and our nation, and every day we fail to act, that fire gets closer to the homes and children we love,” he said.

But in the 2,100-word speech, Romney devoted just 400 words to his proposals. They include lowering federal spending from 24.3 percent of gross domestic product to 20 percent in four years; overhauling Medicare and Social Security to slow the growth in health-care costs; and shutting down some federal programs, and shifting others to the states or privatizing them.

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