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Romney, GOP shift on vulnerable issues

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Fri April 27, 2012
Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, celebrate Tuesday's primary sweep with supporters in New Hampshire.
Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, celebrate Tuesday's primary sweep with supporters in New Hampshire.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney is setting GOP policy on key issues as the certain presidential nominee
  • The strategy seeks to gain the advantage on matters of traditional GOP vulnerability
  • Democrats consider such moves election year politics
  • GOP leaders in Congress seek agreement on issues pushed by Democrats

Washington (CNN) -- For Republicans and certain presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the best defense appears to be a good offense on issues and themes being pushed by President Barack Obama and Democrats.

In recent days, Romney has come out in favor of steps also advocated by Democrats to hold down interest rates for federal student loans and renew the Violence Against Women Act.

The two issues appeal to key voting blocs for Democrats -- women and youths -- and the attention given them by Romney signals an attempt to erode traditional Democratic bases of support.

Coming off a primary campaign dominated by conservative issues, Romney is now pivoting toward the center to try to win independent support while also challenging Obama on topics considered strengths for the president.

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In addition, Romney offered a GOP variation of a central theme Obama has pushed in recent months -- fairness, or the lack of it, in America's economy -- in his speech Tuesday night after five more primary victories that amounted to his virtual coronation as the Republican standard-bearer.

"We will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the very taxpayers they serve," the former Massachusetts governor said. "And we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next."

It is all part of a concerted strategy to try to reverse perceived campaign weaknesses for Republicans as the general election campaign launches.

"I think what they have decided to do is start playing offense instead of defense when it comes to the fairness issue, and what you're going to hear from Mitt Romney over and over again is that there are unfair ways in which the government operates, and so he wants to kind of play a little on the president's turf," said Gloria Borger, CNN chief political analyst.

Such a strategy is risky, Borger added, because polling shows that a majority of Americans side with Obama's complaints of an unfair tax system that favors the rich.

"But I do think it's sort of a look at what's to come, that he's not going to lay back and say, 'OK, that's the president's turf, not mine,' " Borger said of Romney.

The same can be said for Obama's campaign to extend lower interest rates on federal student loans, which are set to double from the current 3.4% to 6.8% on July 1 unless Congress acts.

Originally passed with bipartisan support in 2007 and signed into law by then-President George W. Bush, the expiring lower interest rates provided Obama with another opportunity to promote his campaign theme of economic growth through middle-class development.

In speeches this week on college campuses in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa, Obama told cheering crowds of students how he and the first lady needed student loans to succeed and only paid them off eight years ago.

His goal was to contrast his background with that of Romney -- a multimillionaire businessman turned politician -- to argue that he better understands the issues and needs of young voters. Obama also encouraged supporters to let their congressional representatives know their feelings.

Apparently, it worked. Romney quickly tried to defuse any disadvantage, blaming Obama's policies for high unemployment among new graduates and saying this week: "I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans."

In Congress, Republican leaders still smarting from being outmaneuvered by Obama and Democrats in last December's payroll tax cut extension debate sought to use Romney's stance as cover for GOP efforts to alter the student loan legislation.

Both Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, insisted that Republicans always supported extending the lower tax rates for federal student loans but quibbled with how to pay for it.

"The president has come out for a one-year extension. Gov. Romney's come out for a one-year extension. We're discussing it as well," McConnell told reporters this week, adding: "I don't think anybody believes this interest rate ought to be allowed to rise. The question is, how do you pay for it? How long do you do the extension?"

Boehner announced Wednesday that the House will vote Friday on a proposal to extend the lower interest rates and pay for them by taking money from funding in the 2010 health care reform law detested by conservatives.

On Thursday, Boehner unleashed an exceptionally harsh attack on Obama, saying the president's speeches this week on the student loan issue were "beneath the dignity of the White House" and "pathetic."

"Democrats and Republicans fully expected this would be taken care of," Boehner told reporters. Noting the nation's economic and fiscal problems, Boehner said Obama was "wasting time on a fake fight to try to gain his own re-election."

White House spokesman Jay Carney responded Thursday by telling reporters: "I understand there is an effort to politicize this, to hide the fact they have a policy problem on their hands."

Carney said the House Republican budget embraced by Romney called for letting the lower interest rates on student loans expire, as well as cutting funding for Pell grants.

"We know what their position was. We're glad they changed it," Carney said, referring to the shift as "a little Johnny-come-lately."

To Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Republican move is all election year politics.

"If this were a year ago, the House Republican majority wouldn't have batted an eye at blocking our proposal to extend the lower rate," he told reporters. "But it's an election year. President Obama has done a great job bringing attention to this looming rate hike, and now, Republicans are in damage-control mode."

Romney also has sought to blunt an Obama advantage among women voters consistently revealed in recent polling across the country. The polling indicated that a conservative focus on social issues such as abortion and contraception, hyped by Democrats as a Republican "war on women," expanded the gender gap.

Earlier this month, Romney mounted an attack line that Obama's economic policies harmed women. His support for extending the Violence Against Women Act appeared to be another effort to defuse a potential electoral vulnerability among independent voters.

Vice President Joe Biden has led the White House charge on the issue, and legislators in both chambers are considering competing versions of proposals to continue the measure.

"Our support for victims of violent crime has always been bipartisan, and it cheapens this important piece of legislation for it to digress into partisanship," conservative Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday. "So, that's my hope, is that we can sort of not take the low road but we can take the high road here in a bipartisan way and get it done."

Another Republican senator, Missouri's Roy Blunt, acknowledged Thursday that Romney's stances might differ from positions taken by GOP legislators.

With disapproval of Congress at all-time highs, Blunt said it probably doesn't hurt Romney's overall message "to have disagreements with members of Congress right now."

For many conservatives, what is happening is that RINOs, or "Republicans in name only," are herding behind Romney now that he has essentially secured the nomination.

"We will go to the polls and vote for him. We may be violently ill while we do it, but at least he is not Barack Obama, and at least he has the chance to do better than we expect," conservative blogger Judson Phillips wrote about Romney on the Tea Party Nation website.

At the same time, Phillips wrote, conservatives must ensure that their preferred candidates win election in the House and Senate.

"We have enough RINOs and moderates as it is," he said. "Last year, the House under John Boehner spent 3% more than it did when Nancy Pelosi was the speaker. Much of the Republican leadership did not even notice this, nor did it even bother them. For them, it was business as usual."

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