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Every good political campaign has a motif. President Obama ran for office in 2008 on a message of hope and change. Mitt Romney's brand is still taking shape. But there's one message, in fact, one word, that pops up in nearly every speech he gives.
Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Mitt Romney's stump speech has evolved over the months. He rarely talks about amber waves of grain any more. It's been ages since he quoted the poem that begins bring me men to match my mountains. But from the beginning of his campaign, this has been a constant.
MITT ROMNEY: I want to restore America to our founding principles. I will restore those principles of this great country. I want to restore to America the principles that have made us...
SHAPIRO: This is Romney spanning four months in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Nevada, Michigan, Massachusetts and, just last week, in Mississippi.
ROMNEY: And my vision is this: It is not to transform America into something we are not, nor have ever been. It is instead to restore to America the principles The Founders describe in the Declaration of Independence.
SHAPIRO: Romney aides say there was no one meeting where they decided to hit the theme of restoration. It just felt like the right thing to say with the broadest appeal.
MARK DEMOSS: I think everybody could point to a time when America was better than it is right now.
SHAPIRO: During the Super Tuesday party in Boston last week, senior Romney advisor Mark DeMoss said appealing to the past is a useful strategy when the present is bleak for so many people.
DEMOSS: Whatever age you are, you can point to a time when our economy was better, or your housing situation was better, or going to college was a better situation, or values were more consistent with perhaps your values.
SHAPIRO: The theme even extends to the superPAC supporting Romney. Although his campaign is legally barred from coordinating with that group, it's called Restore our Future. Yet restoration inevitably looks backwards, and there are risks to that.
Republican language consultant Frank Luntz remembers a campaign he did for the National Council of Mayors where the theme was Taking America Back.
FRANK LUNTZ: And I had an African-American mayor from a major U.S. city come to me and say, you know what? That may work for the white population. But for the African-American population, taking America back reminds them of the '60s and segregation, and the civil rights struggle.
SHAPIRO: Words can take on different meanings based on the time, the place and the audience.
LUNTZ: I think it was Paul Simon who once wrote: A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. So when you define restoration or restoring America, it means something different to each person who hears it.
SHAPIRO: For example, there are regional variations. Laurie Console is a Romney supporter in Boston.
LAURIE CONSOLE: To me, restoring America means that it's a place where the average American can still own their own house, put their kids through college and not have to worry about retirement.
SHAPIRO: To Romney supporter Aaron Johnston down in Mississippi, the exact same words bring to mind social instead of economic issues.
AARON JOHNSTON: I feel like we definitely need restoration of some good moral values in our country.
SHAPIRO: In politics, there is nothing new under the sun, and former Clinton White House speechwriter Jeff Shesol says the idea of restoring America is a well-worn theme.
JEFF SHESOL: And it's usually Republicans more than Democrats who are looking to the past and idealizing the past. But you have heard the theme of restoration from Democrats almost as often as you have from Republicans in presidential races.
SHAPIRO: In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted the Democratic presidential nomination with a speech called Restore America to Its Own People. Even this year, Ron Paul has put forth what he calls a Plan to Restore America.
Beyond politics, advertisers have known for years that nostalgia sells especially when life gets scary. Mark Fitzloff is creative director at the advertising agency Wieden and Kennedy.
MARK FITZLOFF: It's kind of a pretty traceable social phenomenon that when times are tough, people like things that remind them of their past because it feels good, it's familiar, it's comfortable.
SHAPIRO: In a way, even President Obama has appealed to this theme of restoring America, though he does not lean on the word restore quite as heavily. While Mitt Romney says he wants to restore the American sense of freedom, liberty, and economic opportunity, President Obama says he wants to restore the American values of looking out for one another and we're all in this together.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.