WASHINGTON -- While he may be capped at roughly 25 percent support in national polls, it's become accepted theory that Mitt Romney is a smoother presidential candidate, far more comfortable in his skin, than he was during his first run four years ago.
Following Tuesday night's debate in Hanover, N.H., where Romney once again came off as more finessed than the competition, his spokesperson explained the evolution.
"We are in a new issue environment and the number one issue on the minds of voters is jobs and the economy," said Eric Fehrnstrom. "Four years ago, believe it or not, the biggest issue was the war in Iraq. So it is not a surprise that Republicans nominated, as their candidate, the person they believe had the most national security experience and that was John McCain. I think in this election year people are looking for someone who has background and experience on the economy."
It's difficult to quantify the extent to which any election rests on one particular issue. And because of the financial sector's dramatic collapse in the fall of 2008, the inclination is to assume that economic fears drove voter behavior. But a look back at the campaign materials from Romney's '08 presidential run supports Fehrnstrom's argument.
In October 2007, Romney's website featured a 67-page blueprint for how he would manage the presidency. Titled "Strategy for a Stronger America," the first four of the ten "challenges" listed in the document all dealt with foreign policy: "Keeping Americans Safe at Home and Abroad," "Radical Jihad," "Nuclear Terrorism," and "Strengthening Latin American Allies And Confronting Tyrants." The fifth "challenge" was "Global Economic Competition" and the sixth was "Dependence on Foreign Oil." It was only on page 38 of the booklet that the Romney campaign finally addressed "Curbing Out Of Control Federal Spending."
It's a bit too convenient an explanation to say that Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, didn't win the 2008 nomination because he was forced to go outside his legislative wheelhouse. Even Fehrnstrom acknowledges that a campaign is simply easier to run the second time around.
"We saw this happen in Massachusetts," he said. "He ran as a first-time candidate for the U.S Senate in 1994, made some mistakes, but was a much better candidate when he ran for governor in 2002 and won that race. I think his national experience holds that same type of lesson for him."
But the electoral landscape has changed rather dramatically in the past four years. Even the domestic policy issues that shaped the '08 primary season were different than the ones that have, so far, defined the current campaign. At the end of August 2007, for example, the Romney campaign launched a feature on its website called "The Romney Agenda." It consisted of two main issues: "A Pro-Growth Tax Agenda" and "Affordable Health Care For All Americans."
The former still resonates today. But the latter is something Romney discusses rarely -- and almost solely in the context of responding to his critics. Certainly, his website is no longer promoting op-eds like the one written by former Missouri Senator and current campaign co-chair Jim Talent, which noted that "Massachusetts Citizens For Limited Taxation said that [Romneycare] was a responsible solution to America's health care challenges."
That said, even at this juncture in '08, Romney had recognized that the legislation he passed in Massachusetts posed a problem for his White House ambitions. Under the health care "policy briefing" portion of his campaign website, he stressed that his approach was one "that values the states as laboratories of innovation and beacons of creativity." Videos like the one unearthed by Mother Jones Wednesday, showing Romney praising former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy as a "collaborator" whose work "behind the scenes" was "absolutely essential" for passage of the legislation during its signing in 2006, were considered toxic.
There were other similarities between Romney's '08 website and his 2012 campaign. During a Fox News Republican presidential candidate debate held in New Hampshire on September 5, 2007, Romney offered a vision of immigration reform that his campaign subsequently included in the "Strategy for a Stronger America" blueprint.
"I was at the San Diego border and met with our Border Patrol agents," Romney said at that debate. "They told me that more than half of those that try to come across those fences are able to do so. They said there's no way to stop them at the border, unless you close down the magnets. And the magnets are sanctuary cities and having employers sign people up that have come here illegally to do work."
Four years later, the issue of undocumented immigration in the United States may have evolved. Yet Romney, stumping in the exact same state, showed he has yet to find a new anecdote to convey his position on it.
"I was at the border between the United States and Mexico in San Diego and was speaking with some border patrol agents," he told a crowd of voters in Milford, N.H. on October 10, 2011. "And they said that about 100 people [a day] were able to cross, even though there is a fence there ... "I said 'Boy, that's a lot of people [crossing the border], why do they come? And they said 'because the magnet is on ... We have this huge magnet here which is employers are able to hire people that are here illegally."
For more on the Mitt Romney campaign, check out this slideshow: