Romney Makes Late Play For Centre Ground After Months Stuck Out Right

Mitt Romney Speaking in Detroit

It has taken longer than expected to come about, but Mitt Romney has finally taken the advice of his chief aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, and turned his campaign for the US presidency into an Etch A Sketch. As Fehrnstrom famously put it back in March: "You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

In the first presidential TV debate with President Obama on Wednesday night, and in subsequent media appearances, the former governor of Massachusetts has made several sharp changes in tack that have left seasoned Romney observers flabbergasted. The most dramatic was on Thursday night, when during an interview on Fox News he completely denounced his own notorious comments in a private fundraiser that 47% of the American people were dependent on government.

In the firestorm that followed Mother Jones's publication of the remarks, Romney tried to stand by them, saying they were correct albeit inelegantly put. But on Thursday night he ditched them entirely, saying: "In this case, I said something that's just completely wrong."

The U-turn was in the spirit of his performance in the previous night's presidential debate, in which he displayed similarly breathtaking revisions to policy positions that he has been projecting on the campaign trail for at least 18 months.

On tax, having spent the entire Republican primary season trying to convince the fiscally conservative Tea Party that he could be trusted to cut taxes for all Americans including the super-rich, he said: "I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people [who are] doing just fine."

Having spent months attacking government red tape for cramping the creativity of the free market, he announced that he now believed that: "Regulation is essential. You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation."

And having tub-thumped consistently on the campaign trail against Obamacare, he attempted to embrace the most popular aspects of the Affordable Health Care Act. "I do have a plan that deals with people with pre-existing conditions," he said, referring to the provision in the legislation that prevents insurance companies rejecting such patients.

He even praised his own healthcare reforms in Massachusetts as a "model for the nation, state by state". In the past, Romney has tended to avoid talking about his healthcare record as governor because it is seen by many arch conservatives as evidence of his closet liberal tendencies.

Obama has been criticised by pundits of both left and right for failing to point out his opponent's nimble footwork on Wednesday night. But he's been trying to make up for the omission in speeches delivered since. At a rally in Fairfax Virginia on Friday morning, Obama accused Romney of "trying to do a two-step, to have an extreme makeover".

Political observers have reacted to Romney's energetic shift to the centre with surprise; not that he has made the move in itself, but that he has made it so late in the election cycle. The political analyst Larry Sabato said: "Romney has completely ignored until now Richard Nixon's advice – go right for the primary season and then scramble back to the middle for the general election. He is only now scrambling back."

Michael Wissot, a senior strategist with Luntz Global, who advised John McCain in his presidential run against Obama in 2008, said: "I am very surprised that this strategy has been put into place so late. As governor he had a very strong record of bi-partisanship in Massachusetts where he courted Democrats to achieve results."

One explanation for the time delay between Fehrnstrom's hailing of Romney the Etch A Sketch six months ago and the emergence of such a candidate just four weeks before election day has been his persistent difficulties with his own Republican base. He has struggled to convince rightwing conservatives who hold sway at many levels of the party that he can be trusted to carry their convictions into the White House should he win on 6 November.

But there are signs that following his confident and assertive performance at the first debate, the doubters are finally coming on board. William Kristol, editor of the rightwing Weekly Standard and a long-time critic of Romney, conceded after the debate that there was a need for him to be "somewhat reassuring about what he would do as president, which is important for independent swing voters who are not 100% behind the conservative agenda".

That other thorn in Romney's side, Rush Limbaugh, gushed that "this was one of the best debate performances in my life". Erik Erickson, editor of the blog Red State, tweeted the day after the debate: "Mitt Romney may be an Etch a Sketch, but it beats the hell out of Obama's whack-a-mole from last night."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ed Pilkington in New York, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 5th October 2012 19.00 Europe/London

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image: © Austen Hufford