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Scot Lehigh

Morphing Mitt goes into overdrive

Storms can alter the course of elections, and thus it was that the political world woke up to several big questions in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Has the monster maelstrom scattered the last of Mitt Romney’s right-wing positions to the winds, leaving him completely free to finish his moderate makeover? And will Romney shortly be proposing a massive new Marshall Plan to rebuild the infrastructure in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Colorado?

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Just joking. Still, the political metamorphosis Romney has undertaken this month is almost as remarkable as the lightning-fast renovations that certain home-improvement TV shows accomplish while unsuspecting homeowners are out lunching at Applebee’s. Last spring, when long-time Romney lieutenant Eric Ferhnstrom said Team Romney would be shaking the ideological Etch A Sketch to reposition Mitt for the general election, I viewed that as an errant quip, not a Freudian slip. After all, having steered hard right during not one but two GOP primary seasons, Romney surely didn’t think he could leave all that behind and race back to the middle.

Actually, it turns out he did. Lesson: Never underestimate Mitt’s amazing morphability. We are now in the closing days of the campaign — and Romney is running as a reasonable, mild-mannered moderate.

The hawkish Romney that once castigated Barack Obama as weak on foreign policy now endorses the president’s approach on Iraq and Iran. The candidate who portrayed himself as resolutely anti-abortion and determined to defund Planned Parenthood recently told the Des Moines Register he didn’t see any anti-abortion legislation he would sign on the horizon. The man who supported the Blunt amendment — a legislative rider that would have let employers deny insurance coverage for contraception, as well as any other health care services they find morally objectionable — now says he doesn’t believe employers should tell employees whether or not they can have contraceptive care. The candidate who once courted supply-siders with a large across-the-board tax cut now asserts that upper earners won’t pay less under his plan.

Why, Team Romney appears to be basing its strategy on an adage often attributed to H.L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

How else to explain Romney’s new ad in Ohio about the auto industry? That slippery spot faults Obama for taking GM and Chrysler into managed bankruptcy. In doing so, it ignores two signal facts: First, the direct government aid Obama offered kept those companies alive through that process. Second, Romney also favored managed bankruptcy, but without the life-sustaining federal dollars.

It gets worse. Romney’s ad also castigates Obama for having “sold Chrysler to Italians, who are going to build Jeeps in China.” That assertion leaves clear the impression that Chrysler plans to shift US jobs to China. Indeed, Romney made a similar claim last week in Ohio.

That’s just not so. Chrysler has markedly increased Jeep-related US jobs since 2009, and plans another increase next year. And though Chrysler may produce Jeep vehicles for the Chinese market in China, the company says it does not plan to shift US Jeep jobs to China.

Now, no one who has watched Romney’s past campaigns will be shocked by his willingness to trim the truth. Yet I am surprised that Romney thinks voters can be so easily misled.

Still, given the wholesale shape-shifting he’s done from the first debate forward, Romney must believe that enough voters to tip this election are 1) clueless about his primary positions, and 2) such low-information citizens that they won’t learn about his expedient evolution in the week ahead.

Similarly, when it comes to their auto-industry TV ad — and a radio ad that’s even more egregious — Team Romney must suppose that enough voters to tip Ohio Romney’s way have no idea that Obama’s action is widely credited with saving the auto industry. And, further, that they can be fooled into thinking that the Obama-brokered sale of Chrysler to Fiat will mean moving Jeep jobs to China.

This is cynicism squared. The Romney camp is keenly aware that in the final days of the campaign, truth has a hard time keeping pace with falsehoods — and they seem determined to take full advantage of that dynamic.

After all, if he stays honest and loses, Romney’s presidential hopes are over. And if it takes mendacity to win? Well, Mitt knows he’ll have ample opportunity to reshape his image as needed. Indeed, a Romney victory would stand as a testament to his skill at doing just that.

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