Mitt Romney changes his strategy. Why the shift now?

A top Mitt Romney aide says the GOP presidential nominee plans to be more specific about his policy plans, now that more voters are paying attention to the race. But there is probably more to the move than that.

David McNew/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, Monday, Sept. 17.

Is Mitt Romney really changing his electoral strategy? That question arises because that’s what a top Romney aide says the GOP nominee has done.

Senior adviser Ed Gillespie in a conference call with reporters said Mr. Romney is shifting to provide voters with more specifics about his policy plans. Voters “are eager to hear more details about policies to turn our economy around,” said Mr. Gillespie, adding that Romney won’t outline new plans so much as “reinforce” proposals he’s already issued.

The “timing is right” for this move, added Gillespie, as millions of voters are now tuning in to Campaign 2012 after the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

As to what this might mean in practice, an ad posted Monday on YouTube by the Romney team provides a hint. Titled “The Romney Plan," the 40-second ad lists the main categories of Romney’s longtime economic plan: new trade agreements and a crackdown on Chinese trade cheating; deficit reduction; and tax and regulation reductions that help small business.

Gillespie also listed some of Romney’s preexisting energy positions as the sort of thing that might get a bigger push in days ahead. Romney would approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, allow more exploration for oil and drilling on federal land, and so forth. These are “specifics that people go, ‘Oh, I see, that’s how you could get to be energy independent by 2020,' ” said Gillespie.

Candidates have lots of different strategies for lots of different things, so it’s hard to judge whether Romney’s Boston team has really changed its overarching view of the election. We’d think they probably haven’t, given that they’re not talking about any sort of real departure from things they’ve said before.

But what this does appear to be is a shift in communications strategy to try to refocus the election on the economy and where it's headed.

Why? Well, it’s possible Romney is just trying to turn the mainstream media’s narrative of the race. A big story in Politico about infighting among his top aides is something he’d surely love to bury. Perhaps worse, some recent polls have shown that President Obama has drawn even with Romney on the measure of which candidate voters would trust to handle economic issues.

But we’d bet that Team Romney has thought about this move a bit more broadly than that. We think it’s possible it is really driven by the calendar, and the looming presidential debates.

The debates might be Romney’s last chance to shake up the race. By repeating his own policy proposals, he may be trying to set up a comparison with Mr. Obama on specifics. He wants to present himself as the leader with a plan for the future, while the incumbent is just a tired force who’s clinging to the things he tried in the first four years.

At the Democratic National Convention, Obama in essence said he needed more time to finish the job he’s already started. Ex-President Bill Clinton made that argument most forcefully, saying nobody could have cleaned up the mess Obama inherited in just one term.

But can’t you see where Romney might be going here? He’s trying to set up the debates so he can turn to Obama and say, in essence, “This is my plan. What do you propose that hasn’t already been tried?”

Gillespie hinted at this approach during his conference call, saying voters are also curious about Obama and what he might do in a second term if reelected.

“They haven’t heard many details from him or many policy proposals at all from him,” said Gillespie.

This may sound like a long shot on the part of the Romney campaign, but remember, the election is now only weeks away. As Davidson College election expert Josh Putnam notes Monday on his Frontloading HQ blog, the problem Romney faces is that it can be difficult to oust an incumbent president in an electoral environment that is challenging but offers that incumbent some hopeful trends to highlight.

That’s why the campaign horse race has been so stable for months, with Romney always just a tick behind.

“The Romney campaign is in the same position plenty of underdog candidates/campaigns have been [in]: behind and looking for the right combination of things to right the ship. There isn’t an easy out and  ... time is running short,” writes Mr. Putnam.

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