Mitt Romney, for 90 short minutes Wednesday, transformed himself into a confident, clear-thinking champion of the average Joe. His ability to turn one winning performance into a winning campaign comes down to this: Sustain and complete the Romney Reinvention Project.
In the afterglow of the Denver duel, top campaign advisers said Thursday that the reinvention efforts will include forthcoming ads featuring clips from Romney's much-praised debate performance, and the increased behind-the-scenes role of two close confidants -- Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who played President Barack Obama in debate prep, and oldest son Tagg Romney, who has subtly taken a more active role in the selling of a more likable version of his dad.
"One night doesn't transform the race, but the next three to five days can," a Romney campaign official said. "We just have to stick to our plan and not chase all the rabbits David Axelrod is going to throw out."
Throughout the debate, Mitt Romney was the cool candidate -- crisp in his vision and sincere about his capacity to protect the middle class and jobless. He was the Romney his friends have long described but the public has rarely seen. But the question now is how to sustain that performance against a ferociously competitive president whose campaign has done a superior job with ads and speeches at tearing apart Romney's policies and public image.
Right now, the Romney high command is obsessed with making the candidate seem presidential, a plausible and ultimately preferable alternative to a sitting president.
To this end, Romney will deliver a foreign policy speech Monday at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., and aides believe that event will help them capitalize on the fresh attention to the former governor. Romney will hit hard on the killings of U.S. officials in Libya as evidence that Obama both failed to anticipate threats and then blamed the attack on an anti-Muslim film instead of the terrorists is turned out to be.
The running mates have a debate next Thursday but Romney and Obama don't have a debate again for two weeks, which the Romney campaign sees as breathing space for him to lock in some gains in swing states, where he has been running behind Obama.
For the first time in more than a month, conservatives are making plain they will quit the public bellyaching about his performance.
At Romney headquarters in Boston on Thursday, aides had an enjoyable problem they hadn't had since the primaries: tamping down irrational exuberance. "There's no magic formula" for the treacherous days ahead, a campaign official said. "We're just staying focused: three, four yards and a cloud of dust."
Early this week, top Romney aides began contacting friendly pundits and political allies in Washington about a new umbrella message for the rest of the campaign: what the campaign is calling "the choice narrative," posing a contrast between Obama's policies in the past four years and what Romney would do in the next four. The construct is an effort to continue undermining Obama while responding to voters who in campaign focus groups have said they would like to know more about Romney's policies.
The frame is designed to acknowledge that many swing voters still like Obama as an individual, and also is aimed at elevating Romney and telling his story, now that the campaign realizes it's insufficient to be "not Obama."
Romney used that message as an organizing principle for his answers, and aides said Paul Ryan will do the same at his debate with Vice President Joe Biden next week. Romney will also use it in Monday's address, which an aide said will point to "the choice between the failures of the president in foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and northern Africa, and how Gov. Romney would be different, and will stress the importance of maintaining America's military superiority."
POLITICO has learned Romney is considering adding major speeches on other issues, including the economy.
The campaign on Friday released an ad that will run in Ohio, in which Romney stands on a factory floor in shirtsleeves and says: "Ohio families can't afford four more years like the last four years." An ad running in multiple states ends with the words, from the narrator and on the screen: "We can't afford four more years."
The reinvention effort includes softening the edges of Romney, both stylistically and philosophically. The more likable version of Romney was no accident -- he worked hours on his smile, his posture and the delivery of his words. The more centrist version of Romney was no accident either -- he carefully calibrated his message on taxes, spending and Medicare to broaden his appeal.
A big factor in these changes was Portman.
Portman, who was a finalist for the vice presidential nomination, has taken a broader advisory role in recent weeks than was originally contemplated when he agreed to stand in for Obama during scores of hours of mock debates. Shaking off the disappointment of not being picked as running mate, he has counseled Romney on many of the elements of messaging and stagecraft that helped him score a decisive victory in Denver.
Also taking an elevated role in the home stretch is Tagg Romney, who is not a hands-on campaign official like he was during his father's 2008 campaign. A family friend said the son, who remained a behind-the-scenes adviser, plans to be "more assertive in making the organization work better -- cleaning up some of the organizational dysfunction."
The friend also said Tagg -- like his father, a Harvard Business School graduate -- will be "more proactive in doing the things that need to be done to limit the amount of internal jockeying."
Campaign officials caution not to expect a radical reinvention effort. Indeed, the essence of the message they talked up this morning isn't much different from the one chief strategist Stu Stevens has been evangelizing for many months: Condemn Obama's performance in office and position Mitt Romney as an acceptable and credible alternative.
The same officials caution not to read too much into Romney's disciplined and highly effective approach to the debate. With the exception of the final two debates, much of the rest of the campaign will be waged in improvisational settings -- campaign events and interviews -- that are challenging for the Republican nominee.
Conservatives continue to fret about Romney's capacity to turn his debate message into effective advertising on television. The conservative editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, in three different pieces over the past two days, have taken Romney to task for failing to run resonant ads. The ad team is not going to change, but the debate material gives officials something tangible and uplifting to work with. There is recent precedent to suggest this might work: Obama has spent more money on the ad of Bill Clinton's convention speech than any other ad this cycle. Focus groups found that it reminds people of a very uplifting moment from the feel-good convention. Romney will try to do the same, and likely pull clips of Obama's drowsy performance for a juxtaposition that suggests strength versus weakness.
Taking notably moderate Republican positions on health care, Medicare and tax reform, Romney staked out ground that advisers said should have helped with one of his top target demographics for the debate: suburban women.
The Romney campaign sees Obama's failure to mention the "47 percent" video as a costly blunder. They expect him to try to revive the charge in the next debate, but say it will not be nearly as resonant after the first debate. "That only works when people see him as too rich and too weird," a top adviser said. "He almost created a force field on that issue." That seems like a stretch, given how powerfully the blunder has broken through in polls and focus groups.
A top Republican official emailed from Denver: "I think voters will now be more receptive to hearing more about Mitt's plans for the next four year years."
In addition to the clips from the debate, Romney ads increasingly will be built around clips of him speaking directly to the camera, according to aides.
Romney's debate performance won him a reprieve with donors and the outside Republican groups planning to pour as much as $1 billion into the election, with one official at one of the groups saying Thursday that Romney looks like a winner for the first time in weeks.
"Money follows momentum," the official said. "Momentum is something you can feed, but you can't create. The momentum jump-started a type of momentum the campaign really needed, at a moment when it was not looking good."
Savoring their triumph, Romney advisers pulled back the curtain on several of the precepts behind his strong debate:
-- He had been coached not to be defensive about anything. "Portman kept stressing the importance of maintaining calm," said one official familiar with Romney's debate camp. "Mitt tends to talk fast in debates, but somehow Mitt willed himself to be preternaturally calm."
-- Little things matter. Address the president directly, sending a powerful subliminal message: "I'm every bit your equal."
-- Don't try to change the inner Romney. He loves data so his debate strategists embraced that. "He likes to go through a litany when discussing an issue, and that showed he had a strong command of the facts," another official said.
-- Focus on the big picture of the overall presentation rather than nitpicking statistics in debate practice.
During the debate, Romney then used those techniques to repair some of the main flaws in his image:
-- The $10,000 bettor: The relative strength of Obama's ads versus the weakness of Romney's ads left Romney looking wildly rich and wildly out of touch. He attacked this weakness by saying "middle class" again and again, and repeating constantly his refrain that the rich would not do any better tax-wise under his plan. Romney needs to keep sounding like Bill Clinton.
-- Unfocused, unclear: Romney's own allies were confused about their boss's vision for the country heading into the debate. But he left viewers with the sense that he would cut middle-class taxes, create jobs and change Medicare only for those 55 and younger. His ads and stump speech now need to match his performance in consistency and clarity. The ad team, in the eyes of conservatives, has done a lousy job of this to date.
-- He doesn't get me: Romney struggles with many voting demographics -- suburban women, especially -- because he rarely leaves an audience feeling he understands what it's like to struggle or worry. He did only a modest job of this Thursday night -- and needs desperately to connect his debate performance to a broader pitch that he is the cure for what ails the country and individual voters. It will take a sustained transformation to complete a true reinvention.
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