Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns in Asheville,… (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images )
BOSTON — As Mitt Romney has plunged into the general election campaign, he has notably softened his message about issues as varied as abortion, immigration and healthcare. But while he has moderated his rhetoric, the GOP nominee's policies remain unchanged.
Political observers say his measured tone during the first debate with President Obama was one reason his performance was viewed so positively — in one night, he neutralized months of the Obama campaign painting him as an extremist. As he enters his second debate Tuesday night, continuing this moderation without being viewed as a serial flip-flopper is seen as vital.
"The Obama campaign spent six months trying to persuade people that Mitt Romney is an unacceptable extremist, and a lot of people believe, and I'm among them, that first debate blew up that six months of work," said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former advisor to President Clinton. "That's why Romney's favorability has risen so much, his public support. … Frankly, I think he would have been better served if he had done it earlier."
Many candidates have had to stake out extreme positions to win their party's nomination, only to pivot to the center in the general election. Notable exceptions were President Clinton, who was packaged as a new kind of Democrat and a departure from the big-government liberals of prior decades, and President George W. Bush, whose moniker was "compassionate conservative."
But Romney faces a quandary because of the varying positions he has taken over his political career. He was routinely labeled a "Massachusetts moderate" during the Republican primaries, and strove to prove his conservative bona fides against a field of more ideologically rigid competitors.
Even then, his campaign signaled that his tone would shift for the general election.
"I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes," spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN in March. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again."
The Obama campaign is hitting back, trying to argue that Romney is pandering and pointing out the positions he took during the primaries, including in a Web video released Monday.
"When it comes to his actual policies, he's playing hide and go seek," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.
The Romney campaign dismissed the matter.
"Gov. Romney has been talking all year about his record as a successful governor in a blue state, working with an 85% Democratic Legislature to pass 19 tax cuts, balance the state's budget and raise its credit rating, and bring down unemployment," said advisor Ed Gillespie. "You can be a principled conservative and still get bipartisan results. It's not a question of ideology, it's a question of leadership."
On the campaign trail, the abortion issue perhaps best illustrates how Romney has changed his rhetoric to appeal to general election voters. The GOP nominee said last week that abortion would not be a priority in a Romney administration.
"There's no legislation regarding, with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda," Romney told the Des Moines Register.
His comment contradicted his vows during the primaries to support antiabortion legislation, to the point that the campaign reportedly rushed to reassure conservatives after the remark was published.
Romney had also previously said his goal was to nominate Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe vs. Wade.
During the primaries, Romney supported among the most conservative views on immigration, describing as a "model" the controversial Arizona crackdown that has since largely been struck down by the Supreme Court, and aligning himself with the likes of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of the nation's most conservative voices on immigration policy.
In the general election campaign, he said he would allow young illegal immigrants who obtain a residency permit under a new Obama program to remain in the country. His campaign later said that, if elected, he would not allow more people to apply for the permits.
Romney also is pledging not to raise taxes on the middle class or small businesses. In the primary, he emphasized reducing taxes for all Americans, though he said he would close loopholes and deductions, which he declined to name, for high-income Americans.
The tonal shift is also notable in Romney's statements about his Massachusetts healthcare plan, which was the model for Obama's plan. Romney's plan was among his greatest liabilities during the primaries, but he now routinely embraces it on the campaign trail, even as he vows to repeal "Obamacare."
Although he never ran away from his plan during the primaries, he now brings it up unprompted, and has nodded toward the discomfort the matter once caused him.
"Now and then the president says I'm the grandfather of Obamacare. I don't think he meant that as a compliment, but I'll take it," Romney joked in Florida last month. "This was during my primary; we thought it might not be helpful."