Going into Wednesday’s debate, a number of commentators jokingly wondered “which Mitt Romney would show up.” A jab on Twitter by comedian Conan O’Brien (which was retweeted more than 8,000 times) was typical: "Romney prepped for tonight’s debate by debating with a man whose views differ radically from his own: himself from 8 years ago."
So in a way, the biggest shock was how utterly nonplussed President Obama seemed when he suddenly found himself standing onstage with … Mitt the Moderate.
Maybe it’s because that version of Mr. Romney had been missing for so long that the president was simply lulled into believing he might never return.
Really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s standard practice: Presidential candidates are forced to run to the right (or left) during the primary season – but as soon as they’ve secured the nomination, they begin pivoting back to the center.
But all summer long, the anticipated Romney pivot never seemed to happen. If anything, Romney seemed to be speaking more and more to the right wing – leading many to assume that his advisers were viewing this as a base election, trying to maximize turnout among partisans rather than appeal to independents.
So much for that theory. Wednesday night, on issue after issue, Romney hewed determinedly to the center, softening his positions on everything from taxes to regulation, often blurring distinctions between himself and Mr. Obama.
His tax plan? Romney insisted repeatedly that he would not give a net tax break to upper-income Americans, and that his tax plan would not add to the US deficit. “I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about,” he said. “My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.”
Tax breaks for oil companies like ExxonMobil? They’re “on the table.”
Medicare? He presented himself as the program's real protector: “I want to take that $716 billion you've cut and put it back into Medicare.”
Regulation of business? “Regulation is essential. You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation.” In fact, the biggest problem with Dodd-Frank, according to Romney, was that it designated “five banks as too big to fail and [gave] them a blank check.”
Smartly, Romney also made Obama seem like the partisan one, attacking him for pushing through health-care reform “entirely on a partisan basis,” without a single Republican vote. He also didn’t run away from his health-care plan in Massachusetts at all.
It was like watching the Romney from 1994, back when he was running against Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy – except in this debate, probably fortunately for Romney, cultural issues never came up at all, so he wasn't forced to try to moderate any of those positions.
Of course, the question now is whether this one debate performance will be enough to reestablish Moderate Mitt as the image voters hold of Romney – or whether the more conservative candidate they saw for much of the campaign (which was reinforced by an unrelenting slew of Obama attack ads) is already set in stone?
You can bet that the Obama campaign will be working overtime in coming days to revive Conservative Mitt (and, maybe even more deadly, Phony Mitt). But many undecided voters may be willing to see Romney in a whole new light. After all, these days, reinventing yourself is the American Way. For voters who have been unhappy with Obama’s performance – but also put off by what they had seen up to now of Romney – what they saw onstage Wednesday night may well have been reassuring. At least one participant in CNN's focus group said afterward that she felt "relieved." For Obama, the return of Moderate Mitt could be a big problem.