For the former Massachusetts governor, it’s a continuation of the same strategy he’s pursued since his failed 2008 bid for the GOP’s nomination: ring up powerful endorsements and pull in carloads of money, while laying out his policy positions and directing his political punches at President Obama.
On Thursday, that played out at a town-hall meeting in Exeter, N.H., where Mr. Romney argued it was a “moral responsibility” to get the nation’s spending under control, while his two top rivals for the nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain sparred over the latter’s claim that Mr. Perry leaked information about sexual-harassment complaints lodged against Mr. Cain during the 1990s.
“We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in,” Mr. Romney told the crowd, arguing it is unfair to pass heaps of debt onto future generations. “It is a moral responsibility to believe in fiscal responsibility.”
Before the meeting, he spelled out some additional details of his fiscal approach in a piece he wrote for Thursday’s USA Today. In it, he vowed to cut federal spending from 24 percent of gross domestic product to 20 percent by 2016, in part by eliminating subsidies for Amtrak, slicing funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and cutting spending on Title X family-planning programs “benefiting abortion groups like Planned Parenthood.”
He also pledged to get rid of “Obamacare,” and end foreign aid to countries such as China that don’t need it and “countries that oppose America’s interests.” And he said he’d reduce the federal workforce through attrition.
As for some of the biggest drivers of federal spending, Mr. Romney said Medicaid should be block granted to the states, while the eligibility age for Social Security should be “increased slowly” for younger workers and that benefits should grow at a slower rate for “higher income recipients.” Medicare, he said, should be a defined contribution, allowing recipients to choose between private plans and the traditional system.
The political split screen is the latest iteration of a campaign season in which Mr. Romney has won rave reviews for his debate performances, surged ahead of his GOP rivals in the fundraising battle and shown a canny ability to shift between taking jabs at President Obama and lobbing the occasional verbal bomb at Mr. Perry, the only Republican who has shown an ability to raise enough cash to match him.
Now with two months to go before the nomination process kicks off, Mr. Romney’s strategy seems to be paying off: Polls show him running first in New Hampshire and second in Iowa and South Carolina, a state that will become the center of the nomination contest when it hosts a debate Nov. 12 at Wofford College.
“People are impressed with how he has handled himself,” said Chad Connolly, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. Many voters, Mr. Connolly said, have noted how Mr. Romney “looks presidential” and appears to be a solid candidate.
Democrats have kept their focus on Mr. Romney, accusing the ex-governor of supporting a Mississippi ballot measure defining life as beginning at conception, highlighting his changing positions on abortion from pro-choice to pro-life.
“Mitt Romney has clearly decided that the right wing of his party is more important than the pro-choice wing and he has decided to throw them under the bus,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Other Republicans, meanwhile, are concerned that the allegations leveled against Mr. Cain, as well as his response and the ensuing finger pointing is making Republicans look juvenile.
“Any day spent away from talking about the pivotal issues, which is economic growth and job creation, as well as the indefensible record of the Obama administration is a day wasted,” said Fred Malek, a veteran GOP fundraiser who also noted that the one constant in the race so far has been “Romney’s consistently strong performance in debates and error-free, on-message campaign.”