Mitt Romney could read aloud the collected works of Milton Friedman and some grouches on the right would still claim he lacks a message. But, in fact, as the campaign has worn on, Romney has become sharper and sharper, both rhetorically and substantively when it comes to conservative economic principles.

Fred Barnes has it right when he observes:

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a different Romney — more conservative, more critical of President Obama, and more adept at explaining the contrast between himself and the president. Santorum insisted again Tuesday night that he would offer the strongest contrast, but Romney one-upped him in his post-victory speech. . . .

Santorum suggested Romney had stolen this theme from him, but if so, good for Romney. It’s the right theme. It’s far superior than elevating his background in business to his number one talking point, as Romney did earlier in the campaign.

By doing so, Romney has also embraced a new strategy. His plan was to run as a moderate but govern (I think) as a conservative. He’s abandoned the moderate mask and positioned himself firmly in the conservative camp.

A big step Romney took toward becoming an unabashed conservative was his endorsement Tuesday of the House Republican budget drafted by Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. It is a very conservative document, both reform-minded in regard to entitlements and committed to lower taxes and serious spending cuts, save defense.

A far as claiming credit, Reagan supply-siders like Larry Kudlow, Stephen Moore and Arthur Brooks have as much to do, I would suggest, with urging Romney, in print and on air, to be more specific and assertive with regard to his conservative economic agenda.

Now, truth be told, there is nothing in Ryan’s budget that hasn’t already appeared in Romney’s policy proposals in some form or another. Most noticeable, Romney rolled out a premium-support Medicare plan that included a public option for traditional fee-for-service Medicare, which was shortly thereafter proposed by Ryan and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). In fact, Romney goes beyond the Ryan budget by addressing Social Security reform.

But Barnes certainly is correct that Romney has improved his proposals and message over the weeks and months. He resisted for some time unveiling specific entitlement reforms, but when he did they were conservative and attainable. He did not come out with a comprehensive tax plan until just before the Michigan primary, but when he did he got kudos from fiscal conservatives. Indeed, you can make a case that if Romney had revealed his conservative economic policies a little earlier he would have soothed troubled conservatives. But in any case you can’t say (honestly) that he doesn’t have a conservative economic message.

As for the rhetoric, that, too, is better. There is less of “I was a businessman” and more affirmation of free-market capitalism. In fact, last night he made (I believe, for the first time) a full-throated moral defense of capitalism: “The American economy is fueled by freedom. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty. It is the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity.” Had Ryan or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the same, I’m sure all the prominent conservative journals would have cheered.

Romney is not relying on a dismal economy (although we may still have one on Election Day). His message for those who are willing to listen is two-fold: 1) We’ve had a puny recovery because of Obama’s policies, and 2) We can do better by adopting a conservative economic agenda that embraces economic freedom and limited government. Maybe the anti-Romney grumps are expecting him to recite this in iambic pentameter or to propose the complete elimination of the corporate income tax, or maybe they are so emotionally invested in opposition to Romney that they have stopped listening. However, in the reality-based presidential campaign world, he’s come a long way.