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How Mrs Romney turned the tide

Sunday, 14 October 2012 - 4:46pm IST | Place: Washington | Agency: The Sunday Telegraph

About a third of his standard stump speech is now devoted to personal stories, including his counselling and care as a Mormon minister of a dying 13-year-old boy from his congregation.

In the brutal cut and thrust of the final month of the US presidential campaign, it is no surprise that Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, is hitting the hustings as an impassioned advocate for her husband. But Mrs Romney is also playing a key behind-the-scenes role in resurrecting the Republican candidate's flagging White House hopes by steering a high-stakes strategy overhaul to present a "moderate Mitt", it has emerged.

Convinced that his campaign was heading for ignominious defeat, Mrs Romney and her eldest son, Tagg, staged a make-or-break "family intervention" with the candidate's closest advisers just before the first presidential debate, according to leaks from within the camp. Their message was simple - Mitt should "be himself" and his team should "let Mitt be Mitt".

They wanted him to open up, with more personal anecdotes in his speeches, to soften his harsh tone on social issues and to remind voters of his days as governor of Massachusetts, when he struck deals with the Democrats. His pivot to the centre has, since the first presidential debate 11 days ago, paid dramatic dividends. A candidate whose political obituaries were already being written has had a resurgence in the polls, leading nationally by a full percentage point in the average of polls last night.

No wonder, Mitt has been bolstered further by a dramatic increase in support from women voters as he closes a once-yawning gender gap with Barack Obama. Mitt rolled out the "moderate Mitt" persona in the October 3 debate in Denver. He came across as both personable and presidential, in an assured performance that caught Obama off guard.

He intensified the strategy as he campaigned last week in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio. About a third of his standard stump speech is now devoted to personal stories, including his counselling and care as a Mormon minister of a dying 13-year-old boy from his congregation. And there is a more confident and relaxed mood to his demeanour.

"Ann has always been a very good character witness for Mitt, but now you can see her influence at work in this change of emphasis," said a senior Republican strategist. The move to the centre was a risk so late in the contest. Romney advisers feared that it would blur his message on jobs, that the candidate was not good at improvising and that it would expose him to old accusations that he was a "flip-flopper", alienating sceptics on the right.

Stuart Stevens, Mitt's chief strategist, had long advocated a relentless laser-like focus on the country's economic woes, to the exclusion of all else, as the path to victory on November 6. The failure of Romney strategists to allow a softer side of their candidate to be put on view seemed to have cost him dearly with female voters. In polls, he consistently scored poorly on the "likeability" factor.

The Democrats had effectively hammered home for months the message that Republicans were conducting a "war on women" over social issues such as abortion and access to contraception.
But since the Romney campaign changed tack, Obama has struggled to regain his footing, despite a welter of Democrat attacks on the Republican candidate as deceitful.

"After running for more than a year in which he called himself a severe conservative, Mitt is trying to convince you that he was severely kidding," the president told a rally last week.

Mrs Romney not only played a key role in this shift of style, but she has also at times adopted a more caustic tone in her role as his defender-in-chief, lambasting his rival's aides for "poor sportsmanship" for claiming her husband lied in the first debate.

"It's like someone?… lost the game and they're just going to kick sand in someone's face and say, 'You liar',?" she said. The debate was the first time, she added, that many Americans saw the man she knew, rather than the figure "mischaracterised" by the Obama campaign and the media.

"In particular with women, I think, they got to see something that was evident at that debate, which was leadership, competency, someone that was energised, energetic, ready to go and tackle the job," she said. Mrs Romney maintained her own hectic schedule last week, speaking to fellow female cancer survivors - she overcame breast cancer - and visiting sick children in Florida, the largest of the battleground states that will decide the election.

She also appeared as a guest host on Good Morning America, one of the most-watched breakfast television shows. "This man cares," Mrs Romney told a rally in Nevada. Of his ministering to the dying boy, she said in Colorado: "This is where Mitt is when someone's in trouble, he's there, he's by the bedside. Right now the country is in trouble."

Whether he can convince enough wavering voters is still to be seen. The race may be dramatically closer, but the electoral map is still in Mr Obama's favour. The next test will be the second debate on Tuesday with Obama, who will surely come out throwing verbal punches. Mitt's wife of 43 years will be in the front row again. Her advice may just have changed the course of the election.

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