- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2012

Monday night’s third and final presidential debate will be the latest opportunity for Mitt Romney to again use the Etch A Sketch that his campaign hinted at months ago.

The Republican nominee has taken advantage of the presidential debates and the giant television audiences they attract to change some stances, soften some positions and generally make the case that he is not the “severely conservative” candidate he appeared to be in the primary contests.

In March, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom famously foreshadowed the changes when he told CNN: “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all of over again.”

Some of the fall campaign’s Etch A Sketch moments include: Mr. Romney now calls for boosting Pell Grant funding — a reversal of his criticism of President Obama’s increases. Also, Mr. Romney now says there are parts of the national health care law that are worth keeping. He also has indicated more leeway on legalizing young illegal immigrants and has tried to assure voters that he will not lower the tax burden on the wealthy or be a crusader on abortion.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama is poking fun at the return of, as former President Bill Clinton called him, “Moderate Mitt.”

Mr. Obama diagnosed the “condition” on Friday as “Romnesia,” warning college students in Virginia that Mr. Romney will say anything to get elected and cannot be trusted — repeating the flip-flopper charge that has dogged Mr. Romney, thanks to his support of an individual health care mandate in Massachusetts and his evolution on abortion and gun rights.

But in polls that show Mr. Romney even or pulling ahead of the president, the move to the middle seems to be paying off.

Making it work

“At this point, the Romney campaign has correctly sensed that the GOP base would vote for a poorly sculpted hunk of driftwood to defeat Obama,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Romney has more flexibility to maneuver than almost any presidential nominee I can think of. He’d be crazy not to take advantage of this fact. And he’s not crazy.”

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell agreed, saying that Mr. Romney is trying to woo single-issue voters and to narrow Mr. Obama’s lead among the coalition of voters — women, Hispanic and young voters — that propelled the Democrat to victory four years ago.

“The president wants to make this a demographics election, but by keeping his original stances and moderating them a bit, Romney is trying to break apart the president’s coalition,” Mr. O’Connell said. “It is actually very smart, because what Romney is basically saying is, ‘I can’t win this election with voters by just touting the economy or just doing well with men over 35 years old.’”

Opening the door

Mr. Romney has vowed over the course of the first two presidential debates to “keep our Pell Grant program growing” and to keep the most popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act: “pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan” and “young people are able to stay on their family plan.” He has promised not to “reduce the share that’s being paid by the highest-income taxpayers,” months after promising that “we’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20 percent, including the top 1 percent.”

Instead of emphasizing the notion of “self-deportation” as the solution to the nation’s illegal immigration problems, he has advocated for a pathway to legal status for young immigrants, also known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally through no fault of their own.

“The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States, and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident,” Mr. Romney said in last week’s town-hall-style debate.

The Romney camp later walked back his remarks, telling The Washington Times that the only path he has identified would be for illegal immigrants to join the U.S. military.

Whatever the case, Mr. Romney began softening his stance on immigration — a perennial top issue for Hispanic voters in polls — before the first debate, telling The Denver Post something that he refused to say for months: He would not immediately deport the illegal immigrants granted temporary legal status under Mr. Obama’s nondeportation directive.

He also told the The Des Moines Register’s editorial board a few days later that “there is no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda” — a direct appeal to female voters in swing states, who in a recent Gallup Poll said abortion is the most important issue for them this election season.

Along the way, Mr. Romney also has generated some doubt about whether he supports the National Defense Authorization Act after saying in a debate earlier this year that he would in fact sign the legislation as written.

Ambiguity as a strategy

Mr. Romney’s vagueness on some of these issues has irritated some people.

Michael F. Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, said he had decided “there’s no point in trying to nail [Mr. Romney] down” on what he will do with Obamacare.

“He won’t be nailed down; he wants ambiguity. And even if you did, his word is a poor predictor of his thoughts and future actions because he’s Mitt Romney,” Mr. Cannon said.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for immigrant rights, said that when it comes to immigration, Mr. Romney is “trying to put lipstick on the pig.”

“The pig, his policies, amount to this: All but young undocumented immigrants who serve in the military should be forced out of the country. His rhetoric is this: I want permanent solutions on a bipartisan basis,” Mr. Sharry said. “He’s got the fog machine on in hopes that Latino immigrants will think he’s actually going to do something for them. But they get this issue better than the Boston brain trust. They get he actually wants to do something to them.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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