SARASOTA, FL -- Mitt Romney has a new act, but this time, it may not be an act.
At Keiser University here on Wednesday, Romney stood before a banner that read "Economic Turnaround" with the sleeves of his white dress shirt immaculately rolled up, and spoke about how his successful career in the private sector made him ideally suited to be the steward of an uncertain economy.
"I didn't spend my life in politics, that's not how I got going," Romney explained. "I spent 25 years in the private sector, in business."
While Romney has made his business background a part of his presidential run from the beginning, his image as a corporate turnaround artist was obscured as he aggressively courted social conservatives and attempted to prove he was tough on national security.
As the former venture capitalist talking about the scourge of global jihad from his front lawn, or as the recently converted pro-lifer touting his support for the Human Life Amendment, Romney came across as artificial.
In the early nominating contests, voters who wanted an authentic social conservative went with Mike Huckabee, and those who were looking for a strong commander-in-chief during a time of war got behind John McCain.
NOW, SEIZING ON growing economic unease, Romney has begun to employ populist rhetoric, and frame every issue as an economic challenge.
"The things I'm hearing from people as I go from town to town and city to city are actually pretty similar as I go across Florida," he said. "People are concerned about the economy, what's happening to jobs...A lot of families are feeling an economic squeeze."
For much of the campaign, Romney ran away from his health-care reform effort in Massachusetts, but now he is fully embracing it as an example of his ability to solve problems.
"When I became governor, I went to work to see if I couldn't find a way to get everybody health insurance," he said. "We had about 460,000 people in my state who were uninsured, and you know, after I signed the bill a year and a half ago, now that it's been in place, we signed up 300,000 people that didn't have insurance. And we'll get the rest. We'll get everybody insured."
At an appearance later in the day at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Romney defended mandates, which force individuals to purchase health insurance or face fines, by citing the "free rider" problem of those who show up at hospitals without health care.
He also vowed that he would "help middle class families make ends meet by making sure they all know they've got health care that's affordable."
During much of the campaign, when Romney talked about the importance of strong families, he included a line about the need to preserve traditional marriage with a constitutional amendment. In his current stump speech, he instead tied the issue back to his proposals on health care and education.
"If you're going to have strong families, you need families to know that they can get health care, that they're not going to have to worry about whether their kids can get the care that they need," Romney said at Keiser. "I also believe if you want to have strong families, you want to have great schools."
When Romney talked about strengthening the military, he also framed it as an economic issue, saying that the American economy needs to be robust to maintain a powerful military.
FOR ROMNEY, the switch in emphasis to economic issues not only allows him to sound more credible, but it makes it more difficult for his opponents to use the "flip-flop" charge against him, at least in the Republican primary. In a general election against a Democrat, any time he mentions creating jobs, he'll be attacked for being a corporate takeover artist that laid off workers (a criticism that helped Ted Kennedy defeat him in his 1994 U.S. Senate race).
Republicans looking for an economic conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan will not find one in Romney. While Reagan believed that government should get out of the economy and allow the market to work on its own, Romney believes in public and private partnerships. Whereas Reagan didn't see government as a solution to America's problems, Romney believes that government can provide solutions, as long as it is competently managed enough.
In this sense, Romney's view of the role of government may be closer to Herbert Hoover, a brilliant mining engineer and consultant who tried to apply his business skills to help manage the economy as president.
Romney's new populist economic message that includes full-throated defense of government mandates for health care may not endear him to all conservatives, but at least his current posture is closer to his actual record as a moderate Republican governor from Massachusetts.
It took a year, but we may finally be seeing the real Romney.
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