Mitt Romney, who a top aide predicted months ago would get an Etch-A-Sketch-clean slate for the general election, is broadening his message and moderating his tone to reach out to swing voters in the run-up to the first in a series of presidential debates this month.
The Republican presidential nominee who spent much of the year stressing his support of tax cuts for all, self-deportation of illegal immigrants and the undoing of President Barack Obama’s health-care law is now highlighting a recast message as he presses to win votes from middle-income earners, Hispanics, women and fence-sitters of all backgrounds.
It’s the culmination of a process that top Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom foreshadowed earlier this year as the former Massachusetts governor pushed to clinch his party’s nomination. Fehrnstrom said in a March 21 interview that Romney would get a chance to reset the race in the fall, like the Etch A Sketch children’s toy that allows drawings to be made and quickly erased with a vigorous shake.
“You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again,” Fehrnstrom said then on CNN.
Since then, Romney hasn’t reversed any of his positions, as his Republican primary rivals and Democrats who branded him a “flip-flopper” said he would. Yet as he readies for the Oct. 3 debate against Obama, he has pivoted to emphasizing elements of his agenda that might appeal to a broader swath of voters.
The tax-cut issue offers one example. Romney has campaigned since February on a proposal to cut income tax rates across the board by 20 percent, arguing that doing so would help create jobs by allowing employers to keep and invest more of what they earn. Lately, he has highlighted the benefits of the plan for middle-income people and emphasized that he isn’t looking to hand more tax cuts to the wealthy.
“There should be no tax reduction for high-income people,” he said Sept. 24 on the CBS program “60 Minutes.” “What I would like to do is to get a tax reduction for middle- income families.”
Romney went further as he campaigned Sept. 26 in Westerville, Ohio, saying that no one should anticipate a substantial tax reduction, because his plan would be financed by curbing or eliminating targeted tax breaks.
“By the way, don’t be expecting a huge cut in taxes, because I’m also going to lower deductions and exemptions,” he told voters in a gym at Westerville South High School.
Two days later in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Romney told donors that while everyone would benefit from his tax plan, the wealthy would sacrifice more to pay for it.
“My view is to lower the marginal rates, get marginal rates down for everybody,” Romney said at a fundraiser at the Union League Club, where contributors giving as much as $50,000 munched on a breakfast buffet. “At the same time, lower deductions and exemptions, particularly for people at the high end, so we keep the current progressivity of the code.”
Romney and campaign aides have said his tax plan would be revenue-neutral -- any reductions in money coming in to the U.S. Treasury would be offset by corresponding increases elsewhere -- and that the middle class and small businesses will get a net tax cut. Yet they won’t answer who would shoulder a net increase to finance it.
Trailing in Polls
The shift in emphasis comes as Romney trails Obama in public polls both nationally and in swing states, and may reflect what surveys show is public sentiment against cutting taxes for higher wage-earners.
Romney’s campaign advisers say there has been no change in his pitch to voters for the final weeks of the race.
“Governor Romney has consistently discussed his plans to strengthen the middle class and help all Americans have a better future than what we’ve lived the last four years under President Obama,” said Andrea Saul, Romney’s spokeswoman.
Still, observers see a recalibration that has intensified since the release of a secretly recorded videotape of remarks Romney made to donors in May branding 47 percent of Americans government-dependent “victims” who pay no income tax and won’t vote for him.
“Romney, like most nominees, has attempted to retarget his message toward the political center, and that has accelerated ever since the ‘47 percent’ comments surfaced,” said Dan Schnur, who worked on Arizona Senator John McCain’s 2000 Republican presidential bid and directs the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
While Obama, who faced no primary opposition, has had all year to move to the middle, Romney “has five weeks and three debates to talk to the center of the electorate,” Schnur said.
Romney is also altering his tone on another issue on which recent polls have shown him to be out of step with public opinion. A Bloomberg National poll conducted Sept. 21-24 found that only about a third believe the 2010 health-care law Obama pressed to enactment should be repealed outright -- as Romney promised repeatedly during the Republican primary race -- while a majority said it should be kept in place. Two in five said the measure “may need small modifications,” and another one in five said it should be “left alone.”
While Romney often says in interviews and campaign appearances that he will repeal the law, he has recently begun speaking more about parts of it he would retain and mentioning the Massachusetts measure that mirrors its approach and that, as the state’s governor, he helped enact in 2006.
In a Sept. 9 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Romney said he isn’t proposing “getting rid of all health reform.”
“There are a number of things that I like in health-care reform that I’m going to put in place,” he said. “One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage.”
What he didn’t mention is that health-care proposal he has offered in his presidential campaign guarantees such coverage only for those who have been able to obtain insurance policies in the past.
Romney last week held out the Massachusetts health-care law -- which, like the national measure, requires that everyone purchase health insurance -- as proof that he cares about people.
“Don’t forget, I got everybody in my state insured,” Romney told NBC in a Sept. 26 interview. “One hundred percent of the kids in our state had health insurance. I don’t think there’s anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record.”
Romney has also softened the restrictive immigration stance he highlighted during his primary campaign. In that race, he berated fellow Republicans for proposing plans to allow illegal immigrants or their U.S.-raised children any chance to stay in the United States and seek legal status. At a Sept. 20 forum in Miami, Florida, sponsored by the Spanish-language television station Univision, Romney attempted to explain his call for “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants, saying he wasn’t proposing a concerted effort to expel them from the country.
“I’m not in favor of a deportation -- mass-deportation effort, rounding up 12 million people and taking them out of the country,” Romney said. “People make their own choices as to whether they want to go home, and that’s what I mean by ‘self- deportation.’ People decide if they want to go back to the country of their origin and get in line, legally, to be able to come to this country.”
As he seeks to present a more broadly appealing portrait to voters, Romney is breaking subtly with more fiscally conservative elements of his party -- including vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who authored the party’s budget blueprint.
At the Univision forum, Romney said he doesn’t back Ryan’s plan to slash Pell Grants by capping them at their current level -- estimated to eliminate federal tuition assistance for 1 million students over a decade -- and instead favors allowing them to grow modestly.
“My inclination would be to have them grow at the rate of inflation,” Romney said. “It’s important in higher education that we get serious about the fact that the inflation of tuition has been much faster than inflation generally.”
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