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Romney’s down, but this bold move could bring him back

If this presidential campaign were a boxing match, right about now the referee would be checking a wobbly Mitt Romney to see if he was too dazed and disoriented to carry on.

The key difference, of course, is that the blows Romney has suffered are mostly self-inflicted. Witness the newly surfaced video of the Republican nominee writing off 47 percent of Americans as non-income-tax-paying, entitlement-expecting, victim-mentality moochers.

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But let’s not pile on. As we await the deafening chorus of condemnation certain to come from conservative critics alert to any comments that could be construed as waging class warfare or stoking tensions along the socioeconomic divide, let’s focus on a different matter.

Can Romney’s campaign be saved, or is this election all over but for the voting?

For an answer, step into the political time machine and travel back to October 2002. With the election just a few weeks away, Republican gubernatorial nominee Mitt Romney was in political peril. Democratic opponent Shannon O’Brien had just boxed his ears in their second debate. Polls showed him trailing by double digits. The dragon of defeat was eyeing Mitt and licking its chops.

But Romney didn’t panic. “He was cool as a cucumber,” says best-selling novelist Ben Coes, who managed that campaign. “When the chips are down, the guy is a fighter.” Romney quit relying on surrogates and started critiquing O’Brien himself. Reversing himself, he accepted O’Brien’s challenge for more debates. Romney introduced a new theme: If elected, O’Brien would be part of a Democratic “gang of three” that ruled the State House. The newly scrappy GOP nominee bounced back to win the crucial final debate and the election as well.

So take heart, Republicans. Although Mitt is caught in a dangerous campaign current, history suggests a trip over the falls isn’t a foregone conclusion. But here’s the bad news: This time, sharpening his negative critique of his opponent won’t be enough. Romney needs to bring his own affirmative message into focus.

Embracing the Simpson-Bowles plan would burnish his image as someone serious about solving budgetary problems, while letting him seize the political center.

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To date, he has offered nebulous plans and improbable promises. There’s a reason for that; having painted himself into an ideological corner during the primaries, Romney is staying vague to avoid the real world consequences of his plans.

The best way to bounce back is with a big, bold move, one that burnishes Romney’s image as someone serious about solving the nation’s budgetary problems, while letting him seize the political center.

That move? Endorsing the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. Doing so wouldn’t just steal a march on President Obama. It would establish Romney as someone courageous enough to tell hard truths about what will be required to address our fiscal problems.

Yes, there are risks. Doctrinaire conservatives would likely catch the vapors, since Simpson-Bowles would end the preferential tax treatment of capital gains and dividends, raise the gas tax, and make significant cuts in defense. Those starboard-siders would have to decide if they value purity more than pragmatism, solidarity more than victory. Another political pirouette would be required of running-mate Paul Ryan, who sat on the Simpson-Bowles commission, but voted against its final report.

Romney himself would have to explain another issue evolution. But the best explanation would speak to a renewed seriousness of purpose: The nation’s long-term problems are so dire that he has shelved his own (much-panned) plans in favor of the tough but necessary medicine Simpson-Bowles prescribes.

Viewed suspiciously by both conservatives and liberals, the commission’s recommendations lean center-right. The ratio of spending cuts to new revenue in its deficit-stabilizing plan is about 3 to 1. What’s more, its call for closing tax exemptions and loopholes and using some of that revenue to lower all income tax rates is similar to Romney’s approach.

In short, Simpson-Bowles represents the kind of sober spending-cuts-plus-revenue approach independents and centrists could likely support. As Romney himself put it in a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos, “ultimately . . . the outcome is decided by people in the middle. They’re taking a close look.”

Yes they are. And right now, the Romney they see doesn’t look like a candidate big or serious enough for the job.

Embracing Simpson-Bowles would be a giant step toward solving that problem.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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