DENVER, Colo. — On October 3rd at around 7:15 p.m. Mountain Time, the Republican presidential nominee decided to join the general election.
For months, the political class has been waiting for Mitt Romney to "shake the etch-a-sketch" and recast himself as a Massachusetts moderate that could appeal to independent voters. Instead, Romney has defiantly disregarded the conventional wisdom, and plowed forward with a bafflingly base-focused campaign all through the summer and into the fall — replete with harsh digs at President Obama's character, lots of culture war rhetoric, a running mate drawn from deep in the conservative movement, and an aggressive case against "class warfare."
That guy was nowhere to be found on the stage Wednesday night, though — and his nationally-televised tack to the center reflects a fresh, and perhaps final, battle plan being drawn up in his Boston headquarters, advisers said.
The campaign has now decided that there are enough persuadable voters at the center that it’s worth shaping their message to attract them, rather than simply convincing conservatives to vote en masse.
This calculation was on full display in Denver. Within 90 minutes, Romney touted his Massachusetts healthcare plan, accused Obama of giving a “kiss to New York banks,” and fiercely insisted he wouldn’t cut taxes on the rich.
"I'm not looking to cut massive taxes and to reduce the revenues going to the government," Romney said in another striking departure from the steady conservatism of the previous 18 months of his campaign.
And Romney repeatedly emphasized his bipartisan credentials.
“I had the great experience — it didn’t seem like it as the time — of being elected to a state where the legislature was 87% Democrat,” Romney said. “And that meant I figured out from day one, I had to get along, and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done.”
Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chen said the candidate’s performance was aimed at genuinely undecided independents.
“My sense is that there are a lot of undecided voters out there who consider themselves independents,” Chen said, rejecting the theory that the political center has shrunk to irrelevance. “And so tonight our goal was to speak to all Americans, whether they were conservatives or independents, and I thought he did that pretty effectively.”
Senior adviser Kevin Madden went a step further, saying, “I think you have a lot of Democrats that may have voted for Obama in 2008 that, because of [Romney’s] focus tonight… they may decide to swing their vote.”
A third Romney aide, granted anonymity to bluntly discuss strategy, told BuzzFeed that Boston is no longer concerned about conservatives’ support, and wanted instead to use the debate to talk to a segment of the electorate they haven’t reached yet.
Democrats, meanwhile, dusted off one of the oldest, and most effective attacks that’s been used against Romney — that he’s a flip-flopper — and accused him of disingenuously altering his message.
“It’s sort of ‘vote for me and don’t believe any of the three positions I’ve taken so far,’” said Democratic Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. “He moved in a lot of ways, and I think mostly to a pretzel. But I think he lost a lot of credibility tonight. “
But Artur Davis, a former Alabama Congressman and recent Republican convert, said Romney only seemed more moderate because he was able to articulate his full plan.
“Tonight people got to hear the full thing,” Davis said. “It’s not that he moved left, right, or center, it’s that they heard Mitt Romney talk about his policies in a way they haven’t before. He was articulate about his policies, and he spoke about his record as a bipartisan governor.”
In any case, Romney’s onstage left-turn marked a sharp departure from the campaign calculus that was being articulated just last month. Then, two Romney advisers told BuzzFeed that they considered the contest “a base election” — a view that helped explained why the candidate was stumping with Pat Robertson and offering full-throated endorsements of conservative Iowa Rep. Steve King.
Recent moves by the campaign seem to have foreshadowed this transition, particularly their recently-clarified support for allowing young illegal immigrants to work legally in the country.
Polling in coming days will tell whether the pool of undecided voters is large enough to sway the election. In the mean time, Romney’s advisers, taking spin-room victory laps late into the night, were expressing confidence in their latest strategy.
"I think that [Romney] made a lot of headway with voters who are going to be making up their minds," Madden said.
With reporting from Zeke Miller.