The final weeks of the presidential campaign are bringing Mitt Romney full circle, back to a question that has tugged at him for nearly two decades: What does he really believe?
Although he declared himself “severely conservative” during the Republican primaries, the former Massachusetts governor has been sounding more moderate in recent days.
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.”
Romney’s team, meanwhile, says there has been no real change in the candidate — or any lack in consistency between his conservative beliefs and his more measured comments.
“Governor Romney has been talking all year about his record as a successful governor in a blue state, working with an 85 percent Democratic legislature to pass 19 tax cuts, balance the state’s budget, and raise its credit rating and bring down unemployment,” strategist Ed Gillespie said. “You can be a principled conservative and still get bipartisan results. It’s not a question of ideology; it’s a question of leadership.”
Still, Romney has sounded a different note of late on a growing list of issues.
During last week’s debate with Obama, for instance, Romney insisted that he would not reduce “the share of taxes paid by the wealthy.” At an earlier exchange with his fellow Republicans in February, he declared, “We’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20 percent, including the top 1 percent.”
Last week, he said: “I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers. Every school district, every state, should make that decision on their own.” But in June, he criticized Obama for saying that “we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” Romney added: “It’s time for us to cut back on government.”
Since Obama announced in June a policy that allows some young illegal immigrants to stay in the country, Romney has criticized it and said he would end it. But more recently he added that he would not revoke the deportation reprieves of those who were granted permission to stay.
On health care, Romney boasted during the debate: “I do have a plan that deals with people with preexisting conditions.”
That sounded like an embrace of one of the more popular elements of Obama’s health-care law. But Romney aides confirmed after the debate that his proposal would not cover those whose insurance had lapsed — a significant detail that could affect tens of millions of uninsured people and that the GOP nominee did not mention.
And Romney renounced his suggestion that the “47 percent” of Americans who do not pay income taxes are government-dependent freeloaders after a raft of polls made clear how damaging those words had been.
“I said something that’s just completely wrong,” Romney told conservative host Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel late last week.
His initial response, however, was to stand by the comments. After the secretly recorded video of his remarks at a fundraiser became public, Romney said his sentiment was “not elegantly stated” but served to underscore an important difference between him and Obama.
“The president believes in what I’ve described as a government-centered society where government plays a larger and larger role, provides for more and more of the needs of individuals,” Romney said. “And I happen to believe instead in a free-enterprise, free-individual society where people pursuing their dreams are able to employ one another, build enterprises, build the strongest economy in the world.”
Among some conservatives, Romney’s shifts have resurrected misgivings about a candidate who began his political career in liberal Massachusetts in the 1990s as a moderate on issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control.
“I’m running out of fingers and toes to count the number of positions he has taken on abortion,” said Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa. “I don’t know anybody in the pro-
family movement who is not for sale who trusts him. People want to know who the person is that they are voting for at their core.”
But others suggest that they are not concerned — especially when they consider the alternative.
“Romney is on record on the issues socially conservative voters care about: Obamacare, religious liberty, unborn life and marriage,” said Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which seeks to mobilize religious conservatives. “The contrast between him and Obama on those issues could not be starker.”
Nia-Malika Henderson and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.