Romney tries to emerge from middle of pack

Mitt Romney: Opportunistic flip-flopper? Or the rare Republican who "gets it" at a time when his party is losing favor with the general public?

In the battle to define his presidential candidacy, the former Massachusetts governor is trying to swat away charges that he has changed positions on hot-button issues such as abortion, immigration, gun ownership and gay rights to appeal to his party's conservative base.

Yet, even as he tries to distance himself from his moderate record, Romney also embraces it to reach voters in the middle""both Republicans uncomfortable with the direction of the party and independent voters he would need in a general election.

The result is that Romney's stump speech can sound at times part Rush Limbaugh, part Bill Clinton, braiding red-meat conservative lines with feel-your-pain prescriptions for health care and retirement security.

"There's a lot of people who say health care's a Democrat issue," Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Greenville, S.C. "Well, baloney."

The backdrop to Romney's appeal is a dramatic shift in public opinion since President Bush's 2004 re-election""away from the Republican Party and toward an issue set that has traditionally benefited Democrats.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this month found that 47 percent of respondents viewed the Republican Party negatively, one of the worst scores since the poll began in 1990. The poll showed health care second only to the Iraq war as a concern in voters' minds. More broadly, surveys show economic insecurity ranking with national security as a top worry for Americans.

"One of the reasons we're gaining some traction is people are saying we need a Republican party that gets it," said Tom Rath, an adviser to Romney and an influential Republican in New Hampshire, one of the early nominating states where Romney has a lead in polls. Poor education or health care "are things that can cut against the strength of a family or economy," Rath said.

And so Romney calls for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage""and for developing renewable energy and improving schools. He quotes Ronald Reagan's famous put-down: "It's not that liberals and Democrats are ignorant. It's just that what they know is wrong." But he also touts bipartisanship.

Romney has so far mainly gotten attention for his efforts to sell himself as a more reliable conservative than front-runner Rudy Giuliani, who supports abortion rights and other socially liberal positions. In that quest, the former Massachusetts governor has renounced his previous support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. He talks much tougher now about immigration and against gay rights than he did as leader of the Democratic-leaning state.

In terms of image, the buttoned-down former venture capitalist has a hard time competing with the folksy Fred Thompson, an actor and former senator from Tennessee with high name recognition who ranks second in most national polls behind Giuliani.

Where the wonkish Romney can shine, however, is by offering a more compelling platform than Thompson.

That is what makes Romney interesting; his unique blend of issues seems to most closely reflect, of all the Republican presidential candidates, the economic disquiet among voters. Giuliani speaks mainly to fears of terrorist attacks. Romney can talk more to fears of a bankrupting doctor's bill.

While governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed a bipartisan law in 2006 requiring employers and individuals to obtain health insurance. Such government-imposed mandates trouble many conservatives. Romney gets around that problem by saying as president, he would let each state craft its own program and give them flexibility to use federal funds as they saw fit.

In a typical pirouette, he uses the health insurance issue both to denounce Democrats and embrace bipartisanship.

"A lot of these Democrats wanted to raise taxes. I said, 'No way,'" he told a crowd gathered at a cafe in rural Newberry, S.C., recently. But when it came time to hold the signing ceremony for the health-insurance law, "Ted Kennedy, he's there, too," Romney says of the liberal Massachusetts senator and conservative whipping boy. "Can you believe it?" The bottom line, Romney said: "We actually found some common ground."

Dispirited by the Iraq war, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, and moral and corruption scandals, many Republicans are increasingly willing to vote for Democrats, research by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio has found.

This puts Romney in a position like Bill Clinton in 1992, who had to position himself as a conservative Democrat to win the general election while mollifying his party's liberal base.

Romney isn't the only Republican aspirant attempting to put traditional Democratic issues into a conservative frame. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Baptist minister, likes to say he is an environmentalist because God wants people to be "good stewards" of creation.

Despite some uneven performances in televised debates, Romney has impressed voters at diners, cafes and other more intimate settings on the campaign trail.

In Greenville, he faced aggressive questions from a group of AARP activists in red T-shirts. "What are you going to do about our pension funds being taken over by corporate greed?" one of them asked. Having made a fortune in business, Romney might have been expected to bristle. Instead, he asked with concern, "Have you had some problems like this yourself?"

Before his questioner could answer, he launched into an impassioned plea to revamp Social Security for future generations, emphasizing that any changes would be far in the future and cause no pain for today's seniors. the time he finished, the corporate-greed question had been forgotten. His conclusion"""It's going to have to be done by Republicans and Democrats together"""caused one of the initially combative AARP members to shout: "Amen!"

Later, the AARP activist who had challenged Romney on pension funds pronounced herself impressed. "He's the first candidate I've heard who actually had some plan," said Barbara Keeton, who described herself as a political independent.

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