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Romney tries to regain footing and focus on economy

NEW YORK — Mitt Romneywon the Republican nomination for president chiefly by being a steady hand, the tortoise amid so many hares. Others could bolt ahead and inevitably stumble; Romney plowed forward, relentlessly.

He is still fairly unflappable, and nobody could ever call him flighty. But as the general election nears, his campaign has seemed to be searching for its footing, venturing into territory in recent days that is far afield from the economic issues that, by virtually every account, will decide the election.

Romney returned to that central theme Thursday in a speech at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Va., telling supporters that voting for him offered the best choice to get the economy moving again. And he directly confronted President Obama’s main argument against him: that he is a fabulously wealthy capitalist who is out of touch with ordinary Americans — and would line the pockets of the wealthy if elected.

Romney turned the argument around on Obama. “What he’s done hasn’t helped,” he said. “It has led to a larger and larger gap between the wealthier and the rest of America.... We want real change. I’m going to bring real change and get America working again.”

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It was a distinct change of pace for Romney, at least in the last few days.

Gone were references to the Pledge of Allegiance and religious freedom that formed the spine of his recent speeches. Gone was the repetition of “We built it” that mocked Obama’s now-famous remark about business owners not being solely responsible for their success. And gone was talk of Obama as an apologist for the United States abroad — a theme that prompted criticism Wednesday that Romney was inappropriately criticizing the president during a foreign crisis.

The back-to-basics speech was met with an enthusiastic reception by the crowd at a public park in suburban Fairfax County, across the Potomac River from Washington. “I thought he was inspiring,” said Katie Wilson, 40, who said she was the vice president of a national company and president of her parent-teacher organization.

Of course, that’s true of most campaign speeches, which tend to be given to self-selected (or campaign-selected) partisan crowds.

But Romney has rubbed even some Republicans the wrong way lately and prompted some murmuring about the direction of his campaign — especially as polls have shown Obama pulling ahead in a race that was essentially deadlocked for months, and which many Republicans have long believed was theirs to lose.

On Monday, Romney campaigned in Ohio, delivering a speech heavy with talk of the Pledge of Allegiance — which, to be sure, he used as a springboard to talk about the economy, among other topics. On Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he flew for a total of nine hours, from Chicago to Reno, and from Reno to Jacksonville, Fla., to deliver one 18-minute speech to a National Guard convention that was primarily about national defense — appropriate, certainly, on that date.

Then, shortly after arriving in Jacksonville, his campaign sent out a statement about the unfolding unrest in the Middle East. Much has been made of that — far too much, conservatives argue — and it is too early to say whether it hurt or helped Romney politically. His statement used a news release and a tweet sent by a low-level diplomat in Cairo to accuse President Obama of apologizing to and sympathizing with those who had murdered American diplomats in Libya. It led to some griping in Republican circles that Romney had exercised too little caution. It is a charge rarely made against him.

“Sometimes, when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go,” wrote Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Reagan.

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The next morning found Romney in a campaign office in suburban Jacksonville, standing at a podium in front of a hastily erected blue backdrop, determined to defend his prior statement.

“The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth but for the words that come from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department,” Romney said. “They clearly sent mixed messages to the world, and the statement that came from the administration and the embassy is ... akin to an apology and was, I think, a severe miscalculation.”

A campaign rally, announced suddenly the night before, was just as suddenly canceled, and several dozen supporters were ushered out of the campaign office to peer in through plate-glass windows.

Former President Clinton was also in battleground Florida that day, campaigning for Obama. Clinton, of course, will be forever associated with the phrase that defined his 1992 election: “It’s the economy, stupid.” His focus that day: Like a laser, on the economy.

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com


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