Mitt Romney wrote an autobiography called “Turnaround” about his experience fixing the 2002 Winter Olympics, and he boasts on the campaign trail how he turned around companies in his business career.
Now, the former Massachusetts governor has managed perhaps his most significant turnaround yet. The more moderate tone and style Romney adopted in the presidential election’s closing weeks have upended the dynamics of the race, boosting his once-flagging campaign.
Romney’s critics say voters are seeing only the latest version of a man with no core who has long demonstrated political chameleon-like tendencies. To his supporters, the shift, showcased in the debates, has allowed voters to see Romney as he is, without the filter of the news media or the negativity of the Obama campaign.
Win or lose, Romney is now clearly in a dogfight, after the race seemed to be slipping from his grasp less than a month ago.
“It’s been a real pivot, but it’s been geared toward a particular demographic: women tend to be late deciders,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “It’s working because women don’t like that hard-edged partisan politics. I think they did a bunch of focus groups and they just changed the tone — and the substance where they have to.”
If Romney’s campaign comeback can be boiled down to one moment, it was on Oct. 3 during the first debate in Denver, after he walked on stage and began speaking in a new way. He was measured, he made a joke, he spoke in soothing tones about two women who were struggling economically — “obviously,” he said, “a very tender topic.”
Romney’s campaign recognized the importance of being able to reintroduce himself to 70 million viewers in the first debate, and he adopted an approach that was more moderate than any he had employed during the six years he had spent pursuing the Republican presidential nomination.
The shift contained echoes of the centrist version of Mitt Romney who ran for Senate against Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, and the former governor who won office in liberal Massachusetts by running in the middle in 2002.
Romney and his advisers seemed to bet that many in the audience would be viewing him for the first time, that they would be unaware that he called himself “severely conservative” during the primary, that he espoused a policy of “self-deportation” to reduce illegal immigration, or of his comment disparaging 47 percent of the country for considering themselves “victims” dependent on government aid.
“There was a presumption that he’d have a lot of baggage,” Fowler said. “But the audience that he’s trying to woo is looking at him for the first time.”
If Romney’s turnaround results in victory, it may be the second time a presidential election essentially turned on a single debate, as the Kennedy-Nixon debates did in 1960 when a self-assured, cool John F. Kennedy emerged the winner.
The Denver debate proved to be just the beginning of Romney’s transformation.
In recent weeks, Romney has softened his rhetoric on a wide range of issues, including abortion, access to contraceptives, immigration, Afghanistan, and Middle East peace.
In contrast to video from a fund-raiser in which he dismissed the 47 percent of Americans who accept government benefits and don’t pay taxes, he said in Florida on Saturday that he cares deeply about single mothers struggling to put food on the table and couples who can’t afford to exchange Christmas gifts.
He has been talking about bringing the world together in a way that strikes a different chord than one of his books, “No Apology,” and his frequent criticism of China’s currency policies.
“We will help the Muslim world combat the spread of extremism,” he said on Friday in Iowa. “We will partner with China and other great nations to build a more stable and peaceful world.”
After earlier supporting the Blunt Amendment — which would allow employers to deny coverage of contraceptives based on religious or moral convictions — Romney said in an Oct. 16 debate, “I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.”
Obama’s campaign has attempted to turn the shift to its advantage, unveiling a new line of attack — saying Romney suffers from “Romnesia” — a diagnosis that means he forgets his previous positions. Obama has recently spoken of trust, saying voters cannot rely on Romney, but they can rely on Obama to remain true to his word.
Romney’s modulation should not have been entirely unexpected.
His campaign suggested in March that he would move to the middle to appeal to a general election audience, when Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom predicted an “Etch A Sketch” moment after Romney won the nomination, in which the candidate would redraw his political profile.
Steve Lombardo, a Republican consultant who advised Romney’s 2008 campaign, said the former Massachusetts governor is trying to make his last appeal to undecided voters. “His tone and manner has changed,” Lombardo said. “But to be honest with you, for a period of six weeks I can’t even tell you what his tone and manner was because they were on the defensive so much.”
“But the last month has been completely different,” he added. “What’s been lifted was this veil of uncertainty about Romney. Is it going to be enough? We’re going to know next week.”
Romney’s campaign declined to comment for this story, saying, “Now we’re focused on getting our message out to voters about what Governor Romney will do as president.”
Romney has begun calling for change, just as Obama did in 2008. On Friday in Iowa, he mentioned the word 16 times in a speech.
Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a Romney adviser who acted as Obama in the debate preparations, insisted Romney did not shift position during the debates. When Romney took the stage in Denver, he said, “I really believe it was him being him.”
“He had been so mischaracterized in ads, at least in my home state of Ohio, in being a guy not focused on the middle class and didn’t care for people,” Portman said. “It gave him a platform to be able to do that — be himself and talk about who he really is.”
Portman also said Romney never got dejected, even as many Republicans were criticizing his campaign and saying he would lose unless he had a game-changing debate.
“He felt like if he could communicate what he was for he would end up winning this thing,” Portman said. “I don’t think he was as pessimistic as probably the Republican talking heads were.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.