Already dogged by a reputation for political shifts on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney is once again honing a new sales pitch to voters, with the former Massachusetts governor now casting himself as a real-world “conservative businessman” who is in sync with the tea party while eager to slap sense into the “career politicians” he blames for the nation’s problems.
Despite some positive early reviews from his first face-off with chief rival Gov. Rick Perry of Texas at Wednesday’s GOP debate, the new pitch is a calculated gamble for Mr. Romney — a bet that he can carve out new territory in the crowded Republican field while battling the stereotype that he lacks core convictions.
“He’s a politician who would be perfectly comfortable in the 1960s when the media was controlled by a half-a-dozen political reporters and you could say one thing in one place and another thing in another place,” said Michael McKenna, a GOP strategist.
“But in this era, which is marked by lots of information and a real craving for authenticity, a guy like Romney has real trouble because I’m not really sure that he has any core beliefs except for two: He is mostly a free-market guy and he thinks he should be president of the United States.”
For Mr. Romney, the new strategy grew out of necessity. For months the front-runner in national polls, he first watched Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota take the lead in polls in Iowa, and then last month saw Mr. Perry enter the race and surge to the top of GOP primary polls.
As a result, political observers say, Mr. Romney is moving away from the above-the-fray strategy that he embraced most of the year and is now courting the tea party voters who seem to be powering many of his opponents.
“They are now modifying what was a logical strategy for them up until the Perry phenomenon, which was just cruise above the fray because he was the 800-pound gorilla and everyone else was down there like a chimpanzee,” said one of Mr. Perry’s big-money fundraisers, who requested anonymity to avoid angering the campaign. “Now that he is no longer alpha dog, conventional wisdom is he can’t ignore Perry; he has to engage him.”
Mr. Romney attacked Mr. Perry early in Wednesday’s debate, chiding him directly for taking too much credit for creating jobs in Texas and for disparaging Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” hitting hard on the theme that such rhetoric could cost the party in the general election against President Obama next year.
“Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but who is committed to saving Social Security,” Mr. Romney said.
The former one-term Massachusetts governor also reached out to fiscal conservatives, telling the debate moderators that “if the tea party is for keeping government small and spending down, and helping us create jobs, then, hey, I’m for the tea party.”
The comment dovetailed with Mr. Romney’s recent efforts to woo the grass-roots movement. He rearranged his schedule to attend a Labor Day candidates forum in South Carolina hosted by tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, where he vowed to repeal much of the Obama agenda if elected.
He also appeared at a tea party rally Sunday in New Hampshire, which was part of an ongoing coast-to-coast bus tour — though event organizers said they have held 150 such rallies and couldn’t remember another time when Mr. Romney approached them. “Of all the people running, I don’t know that there are many who have less years in politics than me,” Mr. Romney told the crowd, which welcomed him warmly.
The appearance, though, illustrated some of the hurdles facing the former Massachusetts governor.
Some tea party groups protested his invitation, accusing Mr. Romney of ignoring the movement until he realized he needed its support. The Romney camp rejected the charge.
Meanwhile, the former governor has started mixing his jabs at Mr. Perry on the stump with the message in which he portrays himself as a “conservative businessman” and the most electable GOP candidate. “I have spent most of my life outside of politics, dealing with real problems in the real economy. Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don’t know how to get us out,” he has said on several occasions.
The message is seen as a swipe at Mr. Perry’s long career in politics, which dates to 1984 and includes stints as a state lawmaker, state commissioner of agriculture and now governor, a post he has held for the past decade since taking over for President-elect George W. Bush in 2000.
A National Journal survey of Republican insiders released last week found the party’s political operatives overwhelmingly believe Mr. Romney has a better chance to defeat Mr. Obama next November than does Mr. Perry.
Democrats say Mr. Romney hurts his general election chances every time he courts tea party voters. Also, in the contrast between the shoot-from-the-hip persona of the gun-toting Mr. Perry and the more staid style of the New England businessman, Mr. Romney has drawn questions about whether he can relate to average voters.
His nuanced nature was on display when he quibbled with news reports that stated he was quadrupling the size of his beach house in La Jolla, Calif. The expansion, he said, would only double the home’s living space.
Mr. Perry, meanwhile, lived up to his rough-and-tumble image Wednesday night when he expressed no second thoughts about the more than 230 people who have been executed in Texas during his tenure.
Mr. Perry’s approach has paid off in the early days of his campaign, both in the polls and in the money race.
The Texan has corralled hundreds of major donor networks, and gobbled up lots of support from tea partyers and fellow evangelical Christians — two key voting blocs that have never been enamored of Mr. Romney, partly because of the former governor’s Mormon faith.