Michele Bachmann made her mark on cable television as a strident critic of the Obama administration. Mitt Romney has spent months impugning the president as a failure.
But suddenly, the leading candidates for the Republican nomination have sidled down a parallel path, threading their remarks with a clear, if sometimes selective, civility toward Democrats.
Pressed by two voters in New Hampshire about how he would unite a deeply polarized country, Romney recalled working with Edward M. Kennedy, an utterance nearly heretical to some conservative voters who saw the late Massachusetts senator as the embodiment of big-government liberalism.
Bachmann, formally kicking off her presidential bid in Waterloo, Iowa, blamed the gridlock in Washington on both political parties and pointedly reached out to “disaffected Democrats.”
A GOP rival, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., recently launched his campaign by pledging to bring a more genteel tone to Washington and praising President Obama’s love of country.
The remarks contrasted starkly with the bitter contentiousness that typifies Washington — which was exactly the point. With the capital at a virtual standstill, political experts say the overtures reflect a strategic need for candidates seeking the White House: to mollify frustrations that have been building since before the 2008 election.
Both Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, made their remarks days after the breakdown of negotiations on the federal debt limit between Vice President Joe Biden and top congressional Republicans.
“Voters are looking for their problems to be solved.... I don’t think you have to be terribly intuitive to figure that out,” said John Weaver, a Huntsman advisor. “President Obama promised a different direction when he ran in 2008 and it hasn’t happened.... Voters are fed up.”
All three candidates have clear — and different — motivations for taking this tack, political experts say. For Huntsman and Romney, all paths to the nomination hinge on New Hampshire. There, independent voters, who make up a whopping 42% of the electorate, can cast ballots in the Republican primary.
Unlike Bachmann, both men have indicated that they will not focus their efforts on Iowa and will instead try to replicate 2008 Republican nominee John McCain’s strategy of using New Hampshire as a springboard to the nomination. Steve Duprey, a former McCain advisor and the state’s Republican national committeeman, notes that McCain cinched the primary in 2008 by leading among GOP voters and also winning a “huge margin boost” among independents.
“With no Democratic race this time, there are going to be a lot of Democratic-leaning people who will vote in the Republican presidential primary,” Duprey said. “It takes so few votes to win in a race when there are eight or nine candidates, you can find enough independents who are of your philosophical view to carry you over the line.”
For Bachmann, the imperative now is to segue from cable television bomb-thrower to serious presidential possibility, convincing voters that she is measured enough to lead the free world, said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political science professor.
Her message, he said: “I can be trusted to govern; I’m not wild-eyed and crazy.”
In Waterloo, Bachmann noted that she grew up as a Democrat and volunteered for Jimmy Carter before joining the GOP.
“Our problems don’t have an identity of party; they are problems created by both parties,” Bachmann said. “Americans agree that our country is in peril today and we must act with urgency to save it. And Americans aren’t interested in affiliation; they are interested in solutions, and leadership that will tell the truth.”
Later, she told a South Carolina audience that she was “the unifying candidate” and would bring her “reasonable, fair-minded voice to Washington, D.C., and actually do” big things. She contrasted that approach with that of Obama, who she said campaigned as a “post-partisan” politician but turned out to be “highly partisan.”
Though Bachmann is still forcefully criticizing the president, her tone and word choice have markedly shifted from her pre-campaign comments, when she said Obama and his wife, Michelle, had “very anti-American views,” and that the president’s signature healthcare reform would lead to “gangster government.”
Even the timbre of her voice has modulated, said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.
“She really is just toning it down; her voice is even more tempered,” Bystrom said.
Given the bipartisan animus, there is some risk at this early stage to making overt overtures to Democrats and independents, particularly for presumptive front-runner Romney.
Romney invoked Kennedy, the Senate’s liberal icon for decades before his 2009 death, this week after an independent voter told the candidate he was troubled that Americans were now “either on the extreme left or the extreme right” and had eschewed the spirit of compromise that made America great.
While Romney noted that he and Kennedy disagreed “on almost everything,” he warmly recalled that Kennedy had joked at a bill signing that when he and Romney agreed on a piece of legislation, “it proves only one thing — one of us didn’t read it. The truth was we had both read it and we’d found some common ground.”
Romney didn’t mention which bill, but it was actually the legislation he pushed through expanding health insurance coverage in Massachusetts, a law reviled by many GOP voters as opening the door to the federal healthcare measure pressed by Obama.
“People are already upset with his healthcare policies; the less you do to remind them of that now, the better,” Covington said. “I don’t know whose support he thinks he’s winning by talking about it in the early stages of the nomination process, because people who vote in primaries tend to be more extreme.”
But Duprey, the former McCain advisor, said it was never too early to point toward the general election.
“We can’t win a national election with Republicans; we better test this message with independents,” he said.
Paul West in the Washington bureau contributed to this report from South Carolina.