BOSTON — Mitt Romney, who a top aide predicted months ago would get an Etch A Sketch clean slate for the general election, is broadening his message and moderating his tone to reach out to swing voters in the run-up to the first in a series of presidential debates this month.
The Republican presidential nominee spent much of the year stressing his support of tax cuts for all, self-deportation of illegal immigrants and the undoing of President Barack Obama's health-care law. Now, he's highlighting a recast message as he seeks votes from middle-income earners, Hispanics, women and fence-sitters of all backgrounds.
Romney's campaign wants to sway undecided voters and those who back Obama yet harbor reservations about him.
"This is a very close race," Kevin Madden, a campaign adviser, told reporters on a conference call Monday, adding that the campaign would also be reaching out to "a number of voters out there that may be registering some measure of support" for Obama "that's very soft."
"The reason that these voters right now are undecided is that they've watched President Obama for the last four years, and they haven't concluded he's worthy of their support right now," Madden said. In the coming weeks, he added, the campaign will "lay out the important choice that these voters face on these big issues that they care about."
It's the culmination of a process that top Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom foreshadowed earlier this year as the former Massachusetts governor pushed to clinch his party's nomination. Fehrnstrom said in a March 21 CNN interview that Romney could reset the race in the fall, like the Etch A Sketch child's toy for making drawings and quickly erasing them with a shake.
Since then, Romney hasn't reversed any of his positions, as his Republican primary rivals and Democrats who branded him a "flip-flopper" said he would. Yet as he readies for the Wednesday debate against Obama, he's stressing elements of his agenda that might appeal to a broader swath of voters.
The tax-cut issue offers one example. Romney has campaigned since February on a proposal to reduce income-tax rates across the board by 20 percent, arguing that doing so would help create jobs by allowing employers to keep and invest more of what they earn. Lately, he has highlighted the benefits of the plan for middle-income people and emphasized that he isn't looking to hand more tax cuts to the wealthy.
"There should be no tax reduction for high-income people," he said Sept. 24 on the CBS program "60 Minutes." "What I would like to do is to get a tax reduction for middle- income families."
Romney went further as he campaigned Sept. 26 in Westerville, Ohio, saying that no one should anticipate a substantial tax reduction, because his plan would be financed by curbing or eliminating targeted tax breaks.
"By the way, don't be expecting a huge cut in taxes, because I'm also going to lower deductions and exemptions," he told voters in a gym at Westerville South High School.
Two days later in Philadelphia, Romney told donors that while everyone would benefit from his tax plan, the wealthy would sacrifice more to pay for it.
"My view is to lower the marginal rates, get marginal rates down for everybody," Romney said at a fundraiser at the Union League Club, where contributors giving as much as $50,000 munched on a breakfast buffet. "At the same time, lower deductions and exemptions, particularly for people at the high end, so we keep the current progressivity of the code."
Romney and campaign aides have said his tax plan would be revenue-neutral — any reductions in money coming in to the U.S. Treasury would be offset by corresponding increases elsewhere — and that the middle class and small businesses will get a net tax cut. Yet they won't answer who would shoulder a net increase to finance it.
The shift in emphasis comes as Romney trails Obama in public polls both nationally and in states that have supported candidates from both parties, and may reflect what surveys show is opposition to cutting taxes for top earners.
While some of Romney's aides have signaled they will retool their message for the closing weeks of the race to clarify the choice for voters, there's little evidence of major changes.
Romney's messages "all fit under one umbrella," senior adviser Ed Gillespie told reporters on the call Monday. "We cannot afford four more years like the last four years."
Still, the former Massachusetts governor, who has mostly steered clear of foreign policy, does plan to speak more about the topic in the coming days, particularly sharpening his attacks on Obama's policy in the Middle East.
The president is "leading from behind and reacting to events in the Middle East and North Africa, rather than shaping them," Madden said. "Governor Romney will lay out a stronger vision for American foreign policy, based on the strong leadership that we need to shape events and protect American interests."
Romney is ready for debate questions about his branding of 47 percent of Americans as government-dependent "victims" who pay no income tax and won't vote for him, Gillespie said.
"We believe the voters will see and appreciate the fact that what Governor Romney's talking about would improve the quality of life for 100 percent of Americans," Gillespie said.
Romney and Obama, after debating Wednesday in Colorado at the University of Denver, will face off on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and on Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Each debate begins at 9 p.m. Washington time.
The recalibration of Romney's campaign has intensified since the secretly recorded May remarks were published last month.
"Romney, like most nominees, has attempted to retarget his message toward the political center, and that has accelerated ever since the '47 percent' comments surfaced," said Dan Schnur, who worked on Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2000 Republican presidential bid and directs the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
While Obama, who faced no primary opposition, has had all year to move to the middle, Romney "has five weeks and three debates to talk to the center of the electorate," Schnur said.
Romney is also altering his tone on another issue on which polling shows him to be out of step with public opinion. A Bloomberg National poll conducted Sept. 21-24 found that only about a third believe the 2010 health-care law Obama pressed to enactment should be repealed, as Romney promised during the Republican primaries, while a majority said it should be retained. Two in five said the measure "may need small modifications," and another one in five said it should be "left alone."
While Romney often says in interviews and campaign appearances that he will repeal the law, he has recently begun speaking more about parts of it he would keep and mentioning the Massachusetts measure that mirrors its approach and that, as the state's governor, he helped enact in 2006.
In a Sept. 9 interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Romney said he isn't proposing "getting rid of all health reform."
"There are a number of things that I like in health-care reform that I'm going to put in place," he said. "One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage."
What he didn't say is that the health-care proposal he offered in his presidential campaign guarantees such coverage only for those who have obtained insurance policies in the past.
Romney last week held out the Massachusetts health-care law — which, like the national measure, requires that everyone purchase health insurance — as proof that he cares about people.
"Don't forget, I got everybody in my state insured," Romney told NBC in a Sept. 26 interview. "One hundred percent of the kids in our state had health insurance. I don't think there's anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record."
Romney has also softened his immigration stance since the primary campaign. In that race, he berated fellow Republicans for proposing to allow illegal immigrants or their U.S.-raised children any chance to stay in the U.S. and seek legal status. At a Sept. 20 forum in Miami, sponsored by the Spanish-language television station Univision, Romney attempted to explain his call for "self-deportation" for illegal immigrants.
"I'm not in favor of a deportation — mass-deportation effort, rounding up 12 million people and taking them out of the country," Romney said. "People decide if they want to go back to the country of their origin and get in line, legally, to be able to come to this country."