Can Mitt Romney morph into a ‘regular guy?’

Mitt Romney chows down on a burger (AP Photo/Jae C. Hon, File)

Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch moment is at hand.

Now that he’s the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Romney is shifting away from the “red-meat” issues of abortion and immigration and instead holding more events highlighting his appeal as a regular guy.

The transformation played out Friday when he emerged publicly for the first time in days at a central Ohio university carrying a hamburger and fries in a Styrofoam container.

In a small room that featured more television cameras than students, Romney chatted about economic issues facing young people as he picked through his greasy lunch.

Romney’s appearance at Otterbein University wasn’t the full strategic shakeup from primary to general election that some Republicans feared, but it offered a glimpse into what aides say will be a shift in tone and focus in the coming weeks as Romney fights to deny President Barack Obama a second term.

He will favor more intimate settings, like the Ohio classroom, and a schedule that calls for fewer public appearances as the campaign hopes to show a softer side of the former Massachusetts governor who struggles at times to connect with average Americans. That’s a dramatic difference from Obama, who feeds on large crowds and has scheduled his first formal campaign rallies for May 5.

While the Republican presidential contest has been raging for more than a year, the Romney campaign concedes that most general election voters haven’t yet paid close attention. The campaign now sees an opportunity to reintroduce their candidate to the independents and moderate voters — Hispanics and younger voters, among them — who will ultimately help decide November’s general election. His focus will shift to Obama’s record, his own economic credentials and what aides call “inspirational themes.”

“I’m absolutely convinced that this nation is the greatest nation on earth, and it is so because of the American people, a people who stand united when called upon by leaders to be united,” Romney said at Otterbein University Friday, offering unusually measured remarks — even for the former businessman’s standards — mentioning Obama by name only a handful of times. “I will try and unite the American people, not divide us.”

But the stop at Otterbein University highlighted Romney’s challenge: His style on the campaign trail is a study in contrasts.

Romney is almost constantly cracking jokes with the people around him — whether they are governors or college students or his staff. He likes practical jokes and fast food, whether cameras are rolling or not. But he is at other times incredibly disciplined, refusing to take impromptu questions from reporters or wade into difficult subjects unprepared.

He often delivers remarks from a teleprompter — an aid he’s criticized Obama for using — and he rarely displays emotion in public. Campaigning in Puerto Rico last month, he may have been the only person on a crowded stage not dancing.

Indeed, despite the preparation and years of practice, Romney sometimes transmits an awkwardness even in intimate settings.

“Congratulations,” he said in between bites of a hamburger after Otterbein senior Jeff Fabus described his struggle to pay for college.

In more formal remarks to students later in the day, he raised some eyebrows after suggesting that students “take risks” — and even borrow money from their parents — to help improve their economic fortunes by finishing their education.

“This is kind of an American experience,” he said.

But Romney’s story is not typical of most Americans. Romney paid for his graduate education at Harvard University, in part, by selling stock that his father — a former Michigan governor — bought for him, Ann Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994.

Facing intensifying attacks from Democrats, however, Romney has fine-tuned a message to address such criticism, insisting that he will not apologize for his success. Expect that message to continue as he faces new rounds of questions about his business career and continued reluctance to provide more than two years of tax returns.

He may be shifting his focus and delivery, but his broad message has not changed over the last year. He has consistently focused on the economy and his record in the private sector. And while he periodically attacked his Republican opponents on the campaign trail, he usually saved his most heated criticism for Obama.

A memo released by campaign manager Matt Rhoades late last week suggests he’ll continue that tack.

“We now know that only one campaign is going to run on President Obama’s record of the past three-and-a-half years in office — and it’s not the Obama campaign,” Rhoades wrote.

Regardless of his specific message, however, Romney’s delivery at times can seem stiff, even to supporters. He speaks with the measured tone of a former business executive, methodically scanning the audience from side to side. The Otterbein crowd greeted him with a standing ovation but wasn’t inspired to interrupt him again with applause until 27 minutes into the speech.

And he struggled to hold the younger crowd’s attention at times.

The Romney campaign is confident that general election voters will ultimately warm to Romney’s style as they get to know him better, particularly with the help of his wife, Ann.

“I think America’s going to fall in love with Ann Romney,” said senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who last month suggested Romney would handle the transition to the general election like an Etch A Sketch. “I think they’re going to fall in love with Mitt Romney and the entire family.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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Time for Romney to mend fences

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney: Time to kiss and make up? (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Now is the time for Mitt Romney to mend his Republican fences and bring around those dubious voters who kept spurning him for Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and others to the right. After a nasty primary battle, his challenge is to somehow excite the party’s staunchest conservatives without alienating the independent voters he’ll need to defeat President Barack Obama in the fall.

Romney predicted on Wednesday that Republicans will naturally rally together against their common foe, Obama, and focus on their shared distress about the nation’s economy — an issue that resonates across the political spectrum.

To smooth the way, party leaders are moving quickly to close ranks, piling on more Romney endorsements after Santorum quit the field Tuesday. It’s unclear whether that will be enough to dispense with some voters’ worries, stoked by Romney’s primary season rivals, that he’s an “Etch A Sketch” conservative eager to shift to the center and abandon the conservative base.

While most primary voters surveyed in exit polls said they would ultimately be satisfied with Romney as the nominee, a significant chunk balked. Such surveys conducted in nine states during the primary season found 44 percent of GOP voters said Romney just wasn’t conservative enough.

In a close race, Romney couldn’t afford to have conservative stalwarts staying home on Election Day out of apathy.

“Each side needs every last breathing voter that is instinctively with them,” said prominent social conservative Gary Bauer. “In a close election, 3 or 4 or 5 percent who sit on their hands or are discouraged or alienated could mean the difference in the outcome.”

And it’s more than just votes that Romney needs from evangelical voters and other social conservatives.

“If you don’t get them out there donating, talking to their friends, doing social media, you’re missing out on an army that should be activated,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, who was a supporter of former GOP contender Rick Perry. He said Romney needs to address his Mormon faith and must talk about values to stir this group to action.

The traditional means of unifying a party post-primary is through endorsements from the losing candidates. Although Santorum declined to mention Romney in his concession speech, his campaign said he will meet with the former Massachusetts governor and discuss ways to help him.

Santorum said he would “go out there and fight to make sure that we defeat President Barack Obama” — which presumably means getting behind the GOP standard-bearer at some point. Gingrich insists he will stay in the race as a conservative voice, but he also says he will support the eventual nominee. Typically some behind-the-scenes negotiations lead up to such endorsements.

“No one is going to be able to deliver Santorum’s and Gingrich’s voters better than those candidates,” Mackowiak said. “Earning their full-throated endorsements is job one.”

Bauer, a Santorum backer who’s now pivoted to Romney, said one key to bringing the staunchest conservative voters aboard is choosing a running mate who sparks their enthusiasm — someone with a long record on lower taxes, smaller government, strong national defense and also “values issues,” such as abortion and religious liberty.

Romney confidently predicts that the party will be united by its disdain for Obama’s efforts to solve the nation’s economic woes and his “European social welfare state” policies.

“You will see our party more united that it’s been in a long, long time,” he told Fox News on Wednesday.
Indeed, many Republicans foresee a general election that focuses on the worries of voters of all political stripes about persistent unemployment, a sluggish economy, taxes and the national debt — with social issues fading with the end of Santorum’s campaign.

“Every minute the Republicans spend talking about social issues going forward is strategically a mistake, because the more fertile ground is on the economy and the deficit and spending,” Mackowiak said. “Who’s going to bring up social issues, Obama? No, they’re going to be trying to make this about Romney being part of the 1 percent” of wealthiest Americans.

The best way for Romney to line up the party behind him is to demonstrate how fiercely he can take on Obama, said Republican strategist and pollster Mike McKenna.

“He’s got to say, ‘I know you’ve got reservations about me but in the big scheme of life they’re unimportant, because I’m going to attack the president’s record and I’m going to speak up for your issues,'” McKenna said. “And that’s all that’s important.”

He said a take-charge candidate sends a powerful message to dubious Republicans: “You and I may not love each other, but we’re both pulling in the right direction. You can follow me.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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Santorum looking for resurgence in Louisiana

Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, waves a Etch-A-Sketch while criticizing the policies of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a rally in Shreveport, La., Friday, March 23, 2012. Santorum has strong support among many conservative voters in the state which his campaign hopes results in winning Louisiana's primary on Saturday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Rick Santorum is looking to Louisiana for a much-needed rebound as Republican voters go to the polls Saturday in the state’s GOP primary.

The former Pennsylvania senator is expected to do well in the contest, just a handful of days after a decisive loss to front-runner Mitt Romney in Illinois on Tuesday.

A win over the former Massachusetts governor would serve as a reminder that Romney still struggles among the GOP’s conservative faithful, especially in the South. Santorum beat Romney in primaries in Alabama and Mississippi earlier this month.

But Romney is outpacing Santorum in the race for critical delegates to the Republican National Convention, and he’s been beating Santorum in big, industrial Midwestern states.

“I need your vote, and I want the vote of the people of Louisiana so we can consolidate our lead,” Romney said Friday while campaigning in Shreveport. He told supporters his campaign wants to focus on “raising the money and building the team to defeat someone that needs to be out of office in 2012 and that’s Barack Obama.”

Republicans were voting as President Barack Obama began a trip overseas and the country was focused on the killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Obama made a personal appeal to Martin’s family on Friday, and the GOP candidates all said an investigation into his death was an appropriate course to take.

Romney and Santorum were both campaigning in this northern Louisiana city on Friday, where a large oil and gas industry make energy a top issue in the primary. Both men have been highlighting that on the trail. Also in Louisiana was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has fallen back in polls and has lost other Southern primaries to Santorum.

Santorum spent much of Friday on the defensive, explaining comments he made earlier in the week and insisting he would support the eventual GOP nominee. Still, Santorum says there are similarities between front-runner Romney and Obama that make them indistinguishable on some issues. He caused an intraparty uproar earlier in the week after suggesting he’d prefer a second term for Obama over a Romney presidency.

“Over my dead body would I vote for Barack Obama,” Santorum said as he walked back his original comments less than 24 hours before Louisiana polls were set to open.

The situation underscored Santorum’s challenges, particularly because he faces more difficult territory in the race ahead. He faces increasingly difficult delegate math as Romney continues to win delegates even in states where the popular vote is close.

There are 20 delegates at stake in Louisiana’s primary. They are awarded proportionally to the candidates who receive more than 25 percent of the vote. So a close race would yield just a handful for any of the men in the contest.

Most states divide all the available delegates among the candidates who meet the minimum threshold. Louisiana’s system is strictly proportional, with any leftover delegates designated as uncommitted, meaning they will be fought for at the state convention.

Romney has 563 delegates of the 1,144 necessary to win at the convention, according to an Associated Press tally. Santorum has 263, while Gingrich trails with 135. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has 50.
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Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau, in Pineville, La., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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GOP establishment uniting to back Romney

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida. (REUTERS/Fred Prouser)

The Republican establishment started to coalesce around Mitt Romney in earnest on Wednesday, with Jeb Bush and other leading Republicans pressuring Rick Santorum to leave the race after a thumping in the Illinois primary.

But, on what should have been a triumphant day, Romney found himself having to defend his conservative credentials anew after one of his own top advisers, Eric Fehrnstrom, remarked that “everything changes” for the fall campaign. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch,” he said. “You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

The remark fueled criticism that Romney molds his principles to fit with political goals. Democrats pounced, and by day’s end his GOP opponents were waving the draw, shake and erase toys at campaign events in Louisiana.

“The issues I’m running on will be exactly the same,” the former Massachusetts governor said in Arbutus, Md., as Republicans and Democrats alike mocked him. “I’m running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative governor. I will be running as a conservative Republican nominee — hopefully, nominee at that point. The policies and the positions are the same.”

It all nearly overshadowed the endorsement from Bush, the son of one president and the brother of another. He had stayed out of the race for months, and some party elders publicly had urged him to become a candidate as Romney struggled to close the deal with the conservative base of the party.

Bush refused, and on Wednesday he made his preference in the race known after Romney’s double-digit Illinois victory.

“Now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Gov. Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall,” Bush said in a written statement. He congratulated the other Republican candidates “for a hard-fought, thoughtful debate and primary season.”

His backing comes amid fresh signs that big GOP donors and other party figures will follow Bush’s lead after sitting on the sidelines for much of the primary season. Romney is on pace to win the nomination in June. He has 563 delegates in the overall count maintained by The Associated Press, out of 1,144 needed to win the party nod. Santorum has 263 delegates, Newt Gingrich 135 and Ron Paul 50.

Hours after Bush weighed in, Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and a longtime Romney supporter, suggested that Santorum must decide soon whether to stay in or surrender his bid for the nomination.

“Rick, I think, he’s got a real problem,” Dole, who became the GOP nominee in 1996 on his third try, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “It’s getting close to the point where he’s got to take a hard look at it.”

At the same time, campaign finance reports released Tuesday showed that big donors to a GOP political organization founded by political strategist Karl Rove have boosted their financial support for Romney in recent weeks.

Bush’s support came as a surprise to the Romney campaign. The former Florida governor personally contacted Romney Wednesday morning to say he planned to make the endorsement.

Romney made one quick public appearance in Maryland on Wednesday ahead of the April 3 primary there. He planned to spend much of Thursday personally courting members of Congress and other officials in Washington.

But the Etch A Sketch remark threatened to dog him.

It happened early Wednesday on CNN when Fehrnstrom was asked if the extended primary fight “might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election.”

Fehrnstrom responded: “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 we start all over again.” The aide didn’t back away from the comment when asked to clarify it. He said only that the general election is “a different race, with different candidates, and the main issue now becomes” exclusively President Barack Obama.

It didn’t take long for the Democratic National Committee and Romney’s Republican rivals to seize on the remark.

In Louisiana, Santorum brandished an Etch A Sketch and told voters he is a candidate who stands “firmly on the rocks of freedom, not on the sands of an Etch A Sketch toy.”

Gingrich stood on stage elsewhere in the state and explained to his audience just what the toys were. “Gov. Romney’s staff, they don’t even have the decency to wait until they get the nomination to explain to us how they’ll sell us out,” he said. “I think having an Etch A Sketch as your campaign model raises every doubt about where we’re going.”

Louisiana holds its primary Saturday. Santorum is favored in the state, though Romney’s allies are airing TV ads there even though the South has proven less hospitable to Romney.

Beyond Saturday, polls show Romney has the advantage heading toward Maryland’s April 3 primary.

For his part, Obama on Wednesday headed to Nevada, New Mexico and Oklahoma on a trip aimed at answering critics of his energy policies, sure to be a key issue in the fall campaign. His first stop was a plant in Nevada that uses solar panels to power homes, part of an effort to highlight his programs to expand renewable energy sources.

The president’s GOP critics poked back at Obama before Air Force One even took off.

Gingrich issued a statement saying Obama was answering a real-world problem with a “solution that is totally disconnected from the practical realities of the world and has little chance of success.” Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit arm of a Republican super PAC, launched an ad on TV stations in the areas on Obama’s itinerary and on national cable channels faulting the president for “bad energy policies” that are driving up gasoline prices.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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