DOSWELL, Va. — Subtract the jokes about corn qualifying as amber waves of grain, and Mitt Romney's basic message to voters — captured in his standard 20-minute stump speech — remains remarkably the same today as it was a year ago in the frozen cornfields of Iowa: He's the government turnaround artist the country has been waiting for.
The primary debates and some of his addresses to interest groups produced some of his more memorable lines over the past year, such as his self-labeling as "severely conservative," but when it comes to the image Mr. Romney projects when he has the mic to himself and is speaking unfiltered to a crowd, he's delivering essentially the same message in the late-fall sunshine of Virginia this week as he did in the snowy fields of Iowa and hamlets of New Hampshire a year ago.
"We have two very different courses for America: trickle-down government or prosperity through freedom," Mr. Romney said at a campaign stop in Colorado last month. "And trickle-down government that the president proposes is one where he will raise taxes on small business, which will kill jobs. I instead want to keep taxes down on small business so we can create jobs. This is about good jobs for the American people."
Many Democrats and even some Republicans predicted Mr. Romney would pivot toward the political middle after the bruising GOP primaries. But instead he's added nuance, expanding what used to be a relatively short stump speech laden with blunt broadsides against Mr. Obama into a more carefully parsed description of his early days in office.
He still promises to repeal "Obamacare" — the president's signature health care law — but now includes some details about what parts he thinks should be kept intact. And he criticizes the Wall Street regulations that Mr. Obama signed into law, but allows that government does have a role to play in overseeing businesses.
"We have to have regulations," Mr. Romney said at a campaign stop Wednesday in Coral Cables, Fla. "You can't have business work if there are not regulations and laws."
Stylistically, Mr. Romney has cut down a standard part of his primary-season stump speech, when he talked about "American hymns" such as his quip about "America the Beautiful" and its reference to "amber waves of grain." Instead, he's added in a touching story about attending a Boy Scouts award ceremony where the troop flew an American flag that was sent up on the Space Shuttle Challenger and miraculously survived the 1986 explosion.
After securing the Republican nomination, Mr. Romney trimmed some of the red meat he used to toss to partisans, such as accusing Mr. Obama of gathering "inspiration from the capitals of Europe."
And in the final days of the campaign, he's begun peppering his speeches with references back to his term as Massachusetts governor, saying that as governor he had to work with large Democratic majorities in the legislature to control spending and balance his state budget.
"We're going to have to work together," Mr. Romney said in Virginia on Thursday. "These are critical times. This is an election of consequence. This is an election where — where I think we're not going just shape the country for four years, but for a generation. And so it's important that we have a president who understands how to work across the aisle."
Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said Mr. Romney wanted to show conservatives in the primary that, when push comes to shove, he would stand up for their principles. Since then, he has taken his argument a step forward, telling crowds that he will work with "good Democrats" to try to get things done in Washington.
"We are looking at two messages," Mr. O'Connell said. "The first message is, 'I can make America recover faster than President Obama, and on balance my policies will leave Americans better off over the next four years.' That is the principled part. The practical part is that, 'To execute my plans, I will work across party lines to sell my ideas and to solve America's most pressing problems.'"
Along the way, he has boiled the 59-point economic plan he introduced over a year ago down to five points that he lists at every campaign stop.
The rejiggered message, though, was slow to get off the ground, drowned out over the summer by the campaign's own missteps, Clint Eastwood's infamous chair routine at the Republic National Convention and the Obama camp's aggressive effort to label Mr. Romney as out-of-touch rich guy over the television airwaves.
Some Republicans openly worry that the Romney camp should have responded faster to team Obama's summer ad blitz, which framed Mr. Romney as a corporate robber baron. Others say the campaign did not have the money to get its message out — thanks to rules governing the ways general election funds are used.
"I think the only fair criticism of their strategy is that in June and July when they had little money they perhaps allowed the Obama campaign to paint a negative picture of his business career for too long," said Steve Duprey, who advised Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential bid in 2008.
"That said, he really didn't have the resources at that time, and the bet that they could undo that negative through either the convention or the debate ultimately turned out to be true," he added.
Mr. Romney's message broke through in his first debate showdown with Mr. Obama, breathing new life into the former Massachusetts governor's campaign.
Back on his feet, Mr. Romney has since stressed personal stories that were nowhere to be found earlier in his candidacy, and made the pitch that he can be the bipartisan agent of change that Mr. Obama had promised four years ago.
"For me to get the things done," Mr. Romney said at a campaign event here, "I'm going to have to reach across the aisle and meet with good Democrats who love America just like you love America."
Perhaps most important, has been the reaction. Whereas months ago in the primary, the crowds may have responded to the calls for bipartisanship with boos, the thousands here — following in the footsteps of the thousands of others who have heard him say the same thing at recent campaign events in Iowa, Florida, and Ohio — greeted the remarks with loud cheers and applause.
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