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Mitt's middle of the road makeover

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 3:12 PM EDT, Fri October 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney's shift to a more moderate position stirs up Democrats; earns praise from Republicans
  • His earlier hardline conservative tone helped win over conservatives but failed to move poll numbers
  • Moderate tone and move to the middle is a traditional political strategy ahead of a general election

Washington (CNN) -- Mitt Romney seems to be undergoing an extreme makeover -- presidential candidate edition.

A few months ago he told donors at a Florida fundraiser that he'd never convince the 47% of Americans who he described as government-dependent shoo-ins for President Barack Obama to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

In the ensuing firestorm, he admitted his comments were "not elegantly stated," but defended the main point of his message, saying he was criticizing the increasing size of government and entitlement programs.

On Thursday during a FOX News interview, he said he was wrong.

Romney on 47% comments: I was 'completely wrong'

"Clearly in a campaign with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you're going to say something that doesn't come out right," Romney said on Fox News. "In this case, I said something that's just completely wrong."

While Romney's shifting positions give opponents an opportunity to tag him with the "flip-flop" label, it's not that unusual for a candidate to appeal to the party base in the primaries and then move toward the center as a general election nears. The idea is to capture undecided voters, who generally are found in the middle, political experts say.

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During the primaries, Romney told crowds he'd repeal financial regulations at the center of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law. During Wednesday's debate with Obama, he said he'd repeal and replace it. He added that some parts of the measure "make all the sense in the world."

He also campaigned during the primaries on repealing the health care overhaul law known as Obamacare on Day One of his presidency, and steered well clear of discussing a similar plan enacted during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts.

Romney softened his position in recent weeks, saying there were some parts of Obama's plan that he'd consider keeping.

Romney touted his state's health care law during the debate and his plan to preserve coverage for preexisting medical conditions -- the type also found in the federal measure championed by Obama.

The audacity of Romney's Etch a Sketch

Romney's moderate tone and move to the middle is a traditional strategy employed by candidates during campaigns, political experts say.

But his shift is viewed more skeptically since senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN earlier this year that the candidate could "hit a reset button for the fall campaign. ... It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again."

Romney's initial challenge before securing the Republican nomination was to convince conservative voters skeptical of his moderate political past that he could embrace their concerns, political experts say.

The situation, in many ways, reflects a split within the GOP between strident conservatives on budget and social issues and more mainstream Republicans.

"He's trapped between a rock and hard place," said David Lowry, director of the Center for American Political Responsiveness at Pennsylvania State University.

As a result, Romney made the decision on the campaign trail to take a harder line. For example, he selected Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, bringing aboard a seasoned congressional lawmaker with sharp political instincts and social and fiscal credentials celebrated by the right.

What's next: Can Obama recover or will Romney run up the score?

Running as a hard line conservative has done little to net Romney more support with voters overall, however, as polls remained tight. Moreover, in recent weeks, Obama has opened up a lead in several critical swing states.

"In one sense you would expect presidential candidates who've had to tact to one side or the other to go back (to the other side). What was intriguing with the Romney case is how far he felt he had to tact to the right," said Andrew Rudalevige, a political science professor at Bowdoin College. "I always wondered what would have happened if he ran on his Massachusetts record which he touted during the debates."

Romney's initial debate reviews this week were positive mainly due to the way he aggressively confronted Obama in their first face-to-face meeting. But there was a shift in tone and substance on key issues as well designed to resonate with key voter groups.

"I do think the Obama campaign has a point when they say this is a different Mitt Romney who is not the Tea Party Mitt Romney," CNN senior political analyst David Gergen said on Anderson Cooper 360. "This was somebody who said there is a role for government. He agreed with President Obama on education to get those women voters on board. You know, it was a different calibration."

Some conservatives who had recently criticized Romney's campaign as lethargic and on the verge of losing the election hailed his apparent turnaround at the debate.

"On Wednesday night, Romney finally emerged from the fog. He broke with the stereotypes of his party and, at long last, began the process of offering a more authentic version of himself," conservative columnist David Brooks wrote.

Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan, who eviscerated Romney's campaign as "incompetent" in a column last month, now says "America got its first, sustained look at the good and competent Mr. Romney. And it really was a first."

The Obama campaign is pouncing on this switch as an "Etch-A-Sketch" moment and accused Romney of pandering for votes.

"I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney," Obama said Thursday on the campaign trail. "But it couldn't have been Mitt Romney."

The president continued the theme on Friday, telling a crowd at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, "My opponent, you know, has been trying to do a two-step and reposition and got an extreme makeover."

Obama faced similar criticism during the 2008 Democratic primaries on positions that were left of then rival and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

This week, liberals are upset with Obama for saying during the debate that he and Romney have a similar position on Social Security.

CNN's Gregory Wallace contributed

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