Moderate Mitt returns -- but conservatives cheer
Mitt Romney sounded at the first debate a lot like what conservatives always suspected he really is -- a Massachusetts moderate who supports some regulations and doesn't want to cut taxes for the rich.
And the right wing loved it.
A candidate who won the GOP nomination boasting of his "severely conservative" record, Romney on Wednesday presented himself as a centrist with bipartisan appeal, citing his work with Democrats as governor and disavowing tax cuts for the wealthy in favor of deficit reduction.
Romney didn't backtrack on any specific proposals -- he's offered few to begin with -- but he portrayed himself as more problem solver than ideological warrior. The result was an impressionistic move to the center without abandoning any of his primary positions that make independent and moderate voters queasy.
With Romney universally judged the debate's victor, cheering conservatives proved that beating Obama is more important to them than any typical litmus test. It also helped that Democrats spent Thursday licking their wounds and muttering that President Barack Obama, whose team spent months painting Romney as a right-wing extremist, failed to puncture Romney's newfound centrist veneer. Neither Obama nor moderator Jim Lehrer brought up Romney's positions on a host of issues on which he's moved to the right during his career, from abortion and women's health to immigration to gay issues.
Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado congressman and immigration activist who ran for president in 2008 and backed Herman Cain and then Rick Santorum this time, said Romney's tack to the center during the debate doesn't surprise anyone in conservative circles.
"That's where his comfort zone is. It seems apparent that he was, he wanted to talk about it because he feels comfortable with it," Tancredo said. "I expected it, not surprised by it. I was for Santorum during the primaries for that reason. But now, who cares?"
Beating Obama, Tancredo said, is now more important than worrying about Romney's positions.
"I am certainly a partisan and certainly a committed activist, but getting rid of Obama overwhelms everything," he said. "We can't worry now about the nettlesome aspects of Romney's positions on some things."
Even Ron Johnson, Wisconsin's GOP senator who is among the chamber's most conservative members, praised Romney's adherence to broad strokes instead of details because he said a President Romney will have to work with Democrats to pass his agenda.
"You don't want to be laying out specific proposals and backing yourself into a corner," Johnson said. "You have to leave yourself open to be able to negotiate with the other side."
Romney, who rarely brings up his Massachusetts health care law, used it Wednesday as an example of his willingness to reach across the aisle -- and scolded Obama for failing to pass a bipartisan health law of his own.
"So entirely on a partisan basis, instead of bringing America together and having a discussion on this important topic, you pushed through something that you and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid thought was the best answer and drove it through," Romney said during the debate. "What we did in a Legislature 87 percent Democrat, we worked together; 200 legislators in my Legislature, only two voted against the plan by the time we were finished."
Perhaps the most remarkable policy language Romney used in the debate came when he repeatedly defended his tax cut proposal, which calls for a 20 percent reduction of marginal income tax rates. Under fire from Obama that the across-the-board plan would add to the deficit, Romney sounded notes not found in any Republican hymnals of recent vintage.
"You may keep referring to the $5 trillion tax cut, but that's not my plan," Romney said somewhat defensively.
It was as though he were a Democrat fending off accusations from a GOP rival of wanting to hike taxes.
A Republican attempting to downplay the scale of his tax cut package may have sounded jarring. But it reflects two political realities: Romney is getting attacked for failing to explain how he'd pay for his proposal, and the "tax cuts for the rich" message polls poorly with centrists.
Conservatives, though, are largely holding their fire about Romney spurning the supply-side gospel.
Part of this is an understanding that spending and deficits have, in the Obama years, become as important to both the base and swing voters as reducing taxes.
"We need the independent deficit hawks, which include suburban women," explained Greg Mueller, who worked for Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes before running the press shop for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
What would have been apostasy a decade ago, when Jack Kemp's brand of tax-cut conservatism was ascendant and Bob Dole-style budget-balancing on the wane, is now acceptable in the Republican tent. So long, of course, as the fiscal hawkery includes no tax increases.
Larry Kudlow, the Reagan economist turned CNBC host, said Romney's seeming preference for lowering the deficit was more than mitigated by the nominee's desire to combine income tax rate reductions with the elimination of tax credits and deductions.
"I think he was really pushing pro-growth tax reform," Kudlow said, likening it to Ronald Reagan's sweeping 1986 legislation. "He explained last night to my liking: Lower rates, broader base [of taxpayers], growth incentives."
In fact, Kudlow, who has been openly skeptical of Romney on economics, took to National Review Online Thursday to write of the debate: "This is the first time I have been totally convinced of Romney's tax-reform principles."
Johnson, an uncompromising tea partier, said Romney's placing deficit reduction ahead of tax cuts is good policy "because I understand his tax plan."
"Campaigns go through certain phases," Johnson said. "The primary is one phase and the general election is another. You do have to appeal to undecided voters, and you do have to speak to them differently."
Romney's centrist push began a day before Wednesday's debate, when he told The Denver Post that he wouldn't deport the undocumented immigrants granted reprieves by Obama's executive order. During the primaries, Romney lambasted then-rival Rick Perry for defending in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants and declined to take a distinct position on the president's plan for more than three months after Obama announced it.
Like women's issues, gay rights, the auto bailout and Romney's business career, immigration didn't come up during the economy-focused debate, leaving Obama without the social issue cudgel he has used on the campaign trail.
And Romney avoided the religious-themed language familiar to his campaign stops: There was but a lone mention in Romney's closing statement of rights "endowed by their creator" and no references to the nation's founding principles, buzzwords for the tea party activists who joined his cause since the primary season.
Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist said it's acceptable for Romney to moderate his language and tone for the debate audience because the undecided voters he's targeting are less sophisticated on the issues than the GOP primary audience or the true believers attending his campaign events.
"In a primary everybody understands that when you're criticizing regulations, it doesn't mean you don't want any regulation," Norquist said. "In a general election, you need a stage for the independents and the casual observers. You need to tell them you want good regulations, not no regulations."
Chris Chocola, the Club for Growth president who didn't endorse any of the presidential candidates -- "We had concerns with everybody," he said Thursday -- called the debate "extraordinary."
"I've said all along that I think Romney has the potential to exceed expectations and last night was the first time I've seen him do it," Chocola said.
Defeating Obama, Chocola said, is such a high priority that it overshadows concerns that Romney is not the purist candidate the Club for Growth prefers.
"We tend to recognize the political realities," he said. "We're going to be big advocates when we have something better to offer, but when we don't we'll choose between the two options we have. And when it comes to the issues that the Club focuses on Romney is 1,000 percent better than Obama. So we're not going to be critical without something better to offer, and the concepts that he described last night were not offensive to us."
Romney -- man of "No Apology" on the stump and the bookshelves -- even told the president he is sorry for the biggest applause line in his arsenal, the repeal of Obama's health care law.
The promise to end "Obamacare" typically throws Romney's crowds into raucous cheers.
But after his first mention of the O-word Wednesday night, Romney quickly turned to Obama to signal a different tone.
"I apologize, Mr. President," Romney said. "I use that term with all respect, by the way."
Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.