Romney Moves Closer To Center As Election Nears

In an interview with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said anti-abortion legislation would not be part of his White House agenda. But the campaign dialed back the remarks, saying Romney is "proudly pro-life" and "will be a pro-life president." But the episode is part of a larger pattern of moves toward the center by Romney.

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This week in Iowa, the Des Moines Register asked Mitt Romney about abortion. Romney replied: There's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda.

Democrats immediately noted that during the Republican primary campaign Romney actually wrote an article headlined, "My Pro-Life Pledge" that promised specific legislation. Much of his political base is pro-life and his campaign quickly clarified that Romney remains proudly pro-life and would support pro-life legislation.

This episode came during a broad effort by Romney to move to the political center, which presents challenges to President Obama. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: At the beginning of this presidential race, the Obama campaign had to make a choice. Should the president attack Mitt Romney as a shape shifter or portray her as an extreme right winger. They decided to call him an extremist.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Romney backed a law that outlaws all abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Can he cover up his belief in self deportation?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I don't remember anyone as extreme as Romney.

SHAPIRO: For months, Romney did not directly respond to those attack ads. In fact, the Republican primary forced him to play right into the caricature.

MITT ROMNEY: I was a severely conservative Republican governor.

SHAPIRO: President Obama steadily built up a lead among key voter groups that disliked the idea of a severely conservative president. Women especially, gave Mr. Obama a firewall against his challengers advantage among white men. Then came last week's presidential debate and a dramatic shift. Romney said this about Wall Street regulations.

ROMNEY: We're not going to get rid of all regulation. You have to have regulation and there are some parts of Dodd-Frank that make all the sense in the world.

SHAPIRO: He said this about bipartisanship.

ROMNEY: Actually, the day after I get elected, I'll sit down with leaders, the Democratic leaders as well as Republican leaders.

SHAPIRO: And he said this about what he would put in place of the president's healthcare law.

ROMNEY: Preexisting conditions are covered under my plan.

SHAPIRO: That's not entirely true. Romney would guarantee coverage for people with preexisting conditions who already have insurance, but insurance companies could still deny coverage to uninsured people with preexisting conditions. The Obama campaign accused the challenger of keeping this famous promise from Romney advisor Eric Fernstrom.

ERIC FERNSTROM: 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 over again.

SHAPIRO: Whether this move is a political calculation or the real Mitt Romney coming through, it appears to be working. In the last week, Mitt Romney has closed the gap in polls. That's true across the board, including with key swing voter groups such as women. Sandra Mizer is treasurer for Knox County, Ohio. She attended a Romney town hall meeting yesterday.

SANDRA MIZER: Before, I felt that women, in particular, and the whole population in general, only saw the attack ads and I think at the debate, they saw the real people who were running for president of the United States.

SHAPIRO: Housewife, Char Levingston(ph) shares that view.

CHAR LEVINGSTON: People finally now understanding really what Romney is about. I think they're finally getting to realize the kind of man and what he stands for, and his actual, you know, views and opinions, not just all the negative ads that, you know, you see on TV.

SHAPIRO: Even Obama supporter, Don Russell(ph) of Mount Vernon, Ohio, thinks the real Mitt Romney is the one who merged over the last week.

DON RUSSELL: I think Romney switches his view quite often. I think he's more moderate and I think he's just leaning way to the right, just out of pressure.

SHAPIRO: That view is dangerous for the Obama campaign. Aides like David Plouffe are trying to argue that the real Mitt Romney is still an extremist.

DAVID PLOUFFE: Romney will try and say anything to get a political advantage in the moment. But again, we're gonna make sure people understand what he will do as president. Those cuts in education, the vouchers for Medicare, the huge tax cuts for the wealthy paid for by the middle class exploding the deficit, this is what he's going to do.

SHAPIRO: If that's the message President Obama hoped to deliver at last week's debate, he apparently failed. The big question now is whether Mitt Romney has enough time left to cement this newly emerging picture of him with less than a month until the election. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, traveling with the Romney campaign.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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