Editor's note: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect and the author of "Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success." Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.
(CNN) -- With only a month to go before election day, things are moving fast in the presidential campaign.
Twenty-four hours ago it was nothing but good news for Mitt Romney, his campaign revived by a strong performance in the first debate. Then new job numbers came out, showing the economy adding 114,000 jobs in September, upward revisions to the July and August numbers, and a drop in the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent. The economic picture is full of ambiguity, and Mitt Romney's challenge only grows more complex.
So though it took longer than most people expected, Romney has finally made the "shift to the center" that all presidential candidates are supposed to make once they've gotten their party's nomination and no longer have to appeal to their party's base.
This has been a particularly tricky line for Romney to walk, since so many Republicans saw his transformation from Massachusetts moderate to fire-breathing, "severely conservative" (as he put it) candidate as utterly insincere. So another ideological re-imagining had to be handled carefully.
When it came in a debate in which Romney was performing with the skill honed in a thousand boardroom PowerPoint presentations, the timing was perfect. Conservatives had been at the point of panic, desperate for anything that would turn the race around. With Romney emerging from the debate with a newfound energy and momentum, they were more than happy to accept a more moderate nominee.
And more moderate he did indeed seem. Regulations? He's happy to accept them: "Regulation is essential. You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation." Tax cuts for the wealthy? Heaven forfend. "I cannot reduce the burden paid by high-income Americans." And that videotape in which he sneered at the 47% of Americans who won't "take personal responsibility and care for their lives"? After initially defending the remarks, he was ready to make a 180 on that too. Since Obama never brought it up during the debate, Romney went on Fox News the next day and told Sean Hannity, "I said something that was just completely wrong. When I become president, it will be about helping the 100%."
You won't hear Republicans saying this newly moderate Romney represents a betrayal. First off, they're smart enough to realize that Romney hasn't actually changed any of his plans; all he's changed is how he talks about them. And second, conservatives have always been good at coming together when power is on the line. The right has just as many factions and just as much infighting as the left, but when Election Day approaches, they become deadly serious about the task at hand. There will be plenty of time for an ideological struggle over the GOP's identity once the ballots are counted.
Yet it has always been the economic ruling class that stands at the front of the line when the spoils of Republican victory are distributed. The social conservatives may have to wait for abortion to be outlawed and the neoconservatives may have to bide their time before the next war, but a Republican administration will always make tax cuts its first priority.
Mitt Romney -- as pure a representative of that economic ruling class as has ever been nominated for president -- always had a twofold challenge on the economy. First, he had to convince voters that he is an effective manager with knowledge and experience. That was the easy part. Second, he had to assure them that he has their interests at heart. That second part is where the Obama campaign focused all its fire, attacking Romney as a heartless plutocrat who would toss his own grandmother in the street if he thought it would make him a few extra dollars.
I doubt Romney ever had any illusions that the American people would embrace him because he's such a lovable and charismatic fellow. It was one thing to smack down the assemblage of clowns he beat during the GOP primaries (recall that at various times the polls showed Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump leading the field), but defeating an incumbent president with considerable political skills is another matter altogether. So a struggling economy has always been the sine qua non of a Romney victory--and now the economic picture looks better than it did just a few months ago.
As both sides understand, the trajectory of the economy matters more to voters than the place it is in on Election Day. We all remember Ronald Reagan's soft-focus, "Morning in America" ads from 1984 showing the country to be in the best of economic times. But when Reagan was reelected, unemployment was 7.2 percent, nearly as high as it is now. What mattered was that two years before, it had been 10.8 percent. Things were improving steadily, and that's what shaped voters' perception of the economy.
Today, we have an economy moving in the right direction, if not as fast as anyone would like, meaning neither candidate gets a clear advantage out of economic conditions. We have two candidates, both claiming that the middle class is their primary concern. But one of them just started saying it in the last 48 hours, and he's fighting against his own image and that of his party. It will be an uphill slog.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Waldman.