DOSWELL, Va. -- Mitt Romney is returning to his political roots.
In the closing days of his campaign, the GOP presidential nominee is adopting a similar tone and many of the same themes that animated his early runs for office and his father's bids for governor and the presidency in the 1960s.
The devolution into the more moderate Mitt began in Denver during the first presidential debate, when Romney reclaimed his health care overhaul as Massachusetts governor and insisted he wouldn't cut taxes for the wealthy.
But as the campaign closes, for Romney -- who touted himself as "severely conservative" at a conservative confab earlier this year -- it is the old identity that is taking precedence over the new one.
In fact, Romney rarely ever even uses the word "conservative" anymore.
Instead, he is the pragmatic businessman able to get things done and focused like a laser on the economy. It's the same Romney who ran against liberal Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994, and again for governor of the deep blue state in 2002 after he returned from managing the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Tad Devine, a consultant for Kennedy in his 1994 race against Romney, recalled senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom's comparison of his candidate to an Etch A Sketch. He said Romney is not molting into the 1994 version of himself, but he definitely looks more like the candidate they saw 18 years ago.
"They always thought they could turn their back on everything they said [from the primary] in the general," said Devine, a Democrat. "A lot of people, myself included, thought it was going to come sooner. It didn't really come up until the first debate."
Romney comes from a tradition of moderate Republicans like his father, who ran more like the Mitt of Massachusetts than Mitt the presidential candidate.
John R. Bohrer, an author who has studied George Romney's political career, notes that George's entire 1962 gubernatorial campaign was predicated on the idea that he could solve problems and end partisan bickering in Lansing, Mich. He often also said there was too much attention on "ideological viewpoints" and stressed the need for "united action."
On Wednesday night in Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, Romney explained that government can level the playing field and make the economy work better.
"By the way, sometimes people in our party say we want to deregulate," he said. "But that's kind of an overstatement. We want to get rid of excessive regulation and outmoded regulation."
A few minutes earlier, he spoke not of fixing bloated entitlement programs but protecting seniors from drastic cuts to Medicare.
At every stop now, Romney expresses concern about single mothers, the working poor and the unemployed.
It may be a way of refuting criticism -- some provoked by his own secretly taped comment that 47 percent of Americans are on the government dole -- that he is out-of-touch with ordinary Americans, a common Democratic refrain. But it's still a change from the Romney of a few months, or even a few weeks, ago.
"I think of all the single moms across the country in tough economic times, like right there, who are scrimping and saving in many cases to be able to put a good meal on the table at the end of the day for their children," he said in Jacksonville.
"I think of the dads and moms who may be working one-night shifts and one-day shifts who hardly get any time together but are doing it so that they'll be able to buy their kids the clothes that other kids in school have, so they won't stand out. ... This is who we are as a people."
Romney has always espoused anti-Washington rhetoric, but in the waning days of the neck and neck presidential race against President Barack Obama, he is couching it in a call for bipartisanship. The GOP nominee hopes pushing togetherness will appeal to independents sick of partisan infighting.
Speaking here in the outskirts of Richmond on Thursday afternoon, he turned to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor behind him on stage and asked, "When was the last time you met with the president on the economy, or jobs or the budget?"
"He says almost a year," Romney said, turning back to face the crowd. "We'll have to go back and check the calendar. Let me tell you: For me to get the things done I just described, I'm going to have to reach across the aisle and meet with good Democrats who love America, just like you love America, and there are good Democrats like that."
"I won't do that once a year," he said. "When I say regularly, I mean much more frequently than that because we're going to have to work together."
The co-founder of Bain Capital literally rolls up his sleeves for most events -- no matter whether it's morning or evening, indoors or outdoors, hot or cold.
He doesn't tend to talk much on the stump about his most significant accomplishment as governor -- insuring everyone for their medical needs -- because it would bring up the uncomfortable issue of the individual mandate. But he touts his close work with Democratic legislators as governor.
It's still a dramatic shift in tone from the fiercely contested GOP nominating battle. Back then, Romney attacked Newt Gingrich for sometimes advocating a muscular federal role.
Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden said problem solving is "at the heart of [Romney's] resume."
"What happens in primaries is that most everyone on stage ... we agree on all the big issues so those observing the campaign tend to focus on issues of purity," he said. "Now at this stage of the campaign, the governor can talk about how his economic plan would affect people."
In every speech, without fail, Romney outlines a five-point plan to create 12 million jobs. The campaign believes that still persuadable voters don't like Obama, but they want to know that Romney is a good alternative. His focus on results, starting in earnest with the first debate in Denver through Election Day, is meant to convince them of that.
"They did see someone who has command of the issues and is a problem solver," Madden said. "The governor had an opportunity to break past the inaccurate caricature that was forced upon him by 30-second ads."
Romney's recent paid media has also tried to soften his image, presenting him as an outsider who cares more about creating jobs than pushing any social agenda.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, endorsing Obama in an op-ed that posted Thursday afternoon, said Romney has changed -- but not in a good way.
"If the 1994 or 2003 version of Mitt Romney were running for president, I may well have voted for him," he wrote, "because, like so many other independents, I have found the past four years to be, in a word, disappointing."
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