While the Herman Cain circus continues to roll along, making himself and his odd chief of staff the center of attention for all the wrong reasons, there is a real presidential campaign going on. Today Rick Santorum is in Iowa talking about social issues. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is focused on economics.

Yesterday he was in New Hampshire, giving a preview of his approach to spending and entitlements. Speaking with notes scribbled in the car on the way over, he gave a typical Romney speech, heavy on substance. The most interesting section (around the seven-minute mark) is when he contrasts his private-sector experience with Staples with the Solyndra scandal:

I don’t recall him using that riff before, but it’s an effective, vivid way of explaining exactly how his business philosophy shaped his thinking and would inform his policy agenda.

His joke (around 11 minutes in) that he had a “partially Democratic” legislature in Massachusetts, “about 85 percent,” and his explanation of his budget-cutting approach to government suggests that he is now embracing, rather than on the defensive about, his Bain Capital and Massachusetts record. That’s risky on one level, but if he doesn’t begin to describe that record and tie it to his conservative fiscal agenda, he will be savaged by his GOP opponents and, if he is the nominee, by the Obama campaign.

As for the specifics in cuts, Romney ticks off (after 13 minutes) programs and numbers. The message implicit in this is that he knows what he is doing and actually has some facts at his fingertips. As he reels through program costs, the number of navy ships, his conversation with Bibi Netanyahu about the size of government and more, you realize why he’s a much better candidate in 2012 than in 2008. He’s now playing to his strengths rather than racing through the list of conservative positions, trying to check the box for skeptical audiences.

The substance of his proposals, as I reported yesterday, is beginning to sound more and more like the Republican House budget. He’s not only block-granting Medicaid, but doing the same for other programs for the poor. That is precisely what House Republicans suggested (check out pages 38-41). If he continues on this path (on taxes, entitlements), he may convince enough conservatives that he’ll be a reliable conservative partner with a Republican House (and maybe a Republican Senate) as well.

It is true that Romney may win this thing simply by not blowing himself up, as a series of opponents have done. But perhaps he also has come to acknowledge that, if he is going to win, he better win with an agenda that conservatives can get behind and that will provide a mandate, should he be elected president.