MOUNT VERNON, Ohio (Reuters) - Not long ago, Republican Mitt Romney’s crowds on the campaign trail were mostly in the hundreds, he was fading in the polls and his calls to create jobs by limiting government’s reach seemed overrun by his own missteps. Then a new Mitt Romney emerged.
The presidential challenger outmaneuvered a subdued President Barack Obama in their first debate last week, has pulled even with - or ahead of - Obama in national polls, and has seen crowds of thousands of people turn out for him in Ohio this week.
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On Wednesday, the campaign became a spat over how Romney got there - and whether his hints of moving to the political center on abortion, taxes and other issues reflected a truly “Moderate Mitt” or was a conservative’s sleight of hand, aimed at snaring moderate voters in a tight race for the White House.
At issue was an interview in which Romney told the Des Moines Register newspaper that he had no plans for legislation to restrict abortion, one of the great dividing lines between conservatives and liberals in American politics.
The statement seemed to contrast with the staunch anti-abortion stance Romney had taken this year while trying to attract conservatives’ votes during the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney clarified his position on Wednesday. “I’ve said time and again that I’m a pro-life candidate and I’ll be a pro-life president,” he told reporters. As Massachusetts governor he had supported keeping abortion legal but says he later changed his mind.
Obama’s campaign and abortion-rights groups pounced.
They said it was the latest example of hypocrisy or truth-bending by Romney as he tries to carve into Obama’s advantage among women voters and win what Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls show as a dead heat for middle-class voters with annual incomes of $50,000 to $100,000.
“He’s cynically and dishonestly hiding his real positions, but voters shouldn’t be fooled,” said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. “On this issue and so many others, women simply cannot trust Mitt Romney.”
Obama also weighed in.
“This is another example of Governor Romney hiding positions he’s been campaigning on for a year and a half,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News, adding that Romney “thinks that it is appropriate for politicians to inject themselves in (healthcare) decisions.”
If Romney were feeling any heat from conservative and evangelical Republicans who are among the most outspoken opponents of abortion rights, it wasn’t evident.
Several activists suggested that it was understood that after securing the Republican nomination last spring, Romney eventually would need to cast himself as more moderate to win the November 6 presidential election.
“No alarm bells here,” Tony Perkins, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, told the left-leaning political website TPM on Wednesday.
Perkins said the Romney campaign called him soon after the Republican nominee’s remarks were published and assured him that Romney was not weakening his opposition to abortion.
“I think the only reason why you’re not seeing a little bit more conservative grumbling ... is because conservatives just feel that President Obama is just bad for business,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said.
Romney’s running mate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, is strongly opposed to abortion rights. Ryan, preparing for a televised debate on Thursday against Vice President Joe Biden, told reporters in St. Petersburg, Florida, that “our position’s unified” on abortion.
“Our position’s consistent and hasn’t changed,” Ryan said.
Obama’s team has continued to blast Romney for what it said was a series of misrepresentations the Republican made during the first of three televised debates with the Democratic incumbent on October 3.
Obama aides noted that Romney claimed his healthcare plan would cover most people with pre-existing conditions; shortly after the debate Romney’s campaign acknowledged that it would not.
Democrats also have scoffed at Romney’s claim that his plan to cut tax rates by 20 percent would not require massive cuts to social programs or a tax increase for the middle class.
At a Democratic rally in Las Vegas late Tuesday, former Democratic president Bill Clinton mocked Romney’s statements during the debate.
“I thought, ‘Wow, here’s old Moderate Mitt,’ “ Clinton said jokingly. “ ‘Where ya been, boy?’”
In the past few days Romney has made a point of trying to reach out to middle-income Americans, who have been among the main targets for Obama’s campaign pitch.
Romney’s support among such voters took a hit last month with the release of a secretly recorded video in which he described the “47 percent” of Americans who get some form of government assistance as “victims” who wanted handouts and would never vote for him.
Polls on Wednesday continued to reflect the dramatic turn the presidential race has taken in Romney’s favor since last week’s debate - and how the Republican seems to have recovered from the “47 percent” video.
Romney, who trailed Obama by 5 percentage points in the Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll on October 2, the day before the debate, surged to a 1-point lead on Wednesday - 45 to 44 percent.
In Ohio this week, Romney has appeared energized and has been greeted by large, cheering crowds. He is traveling across the key swing state in his campaign bus with New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, a key surrogate.
“It’s not often I talk to a future president, so I thought it best to prepare,” one questioner told Romney at a town hall meeting in Mount Vernon, Ohio, as he prepared to read a question he had written down.
Shaking hands with enthusiastic supporters at Bun’s Restaurant in Delaware, Ohio, Romney - who will debate Obama again on October 16 and 22 - said that “it’s going well. This is an exciting time.”
Late Tuesday in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, an estimated 12,000 people turned out for a Romney rally.
“Ohio,” Romney told the crowd, “is going to elect me the next president of the United States.”
Additional reporting by Sam Youngman in St. Petersburg, Florida and Deborah Charles in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey and Paul Simao