That Romney surge was a clear result of the first debate, and while part of it had to do with the way in which both Romney and the president presented themselves, it is also worth remembering that the message Romney delivered during that first debate was dramatically different than the conservative message he'd been delivering throughout the campaign. Instead, it was a breathtaking march to the middle—including a few statements that could have been made by a liberal.
Here's a few examples:
- Romney tried to sound like he opposed tax cuts for the wealthy: "I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans."
- Romney said he liked green energy: "I'm all in favor of green energy."
- Romney said his health care plan would cover preexisting conditions: "In fact, I do have a plan that deals with people with pre-existing conditions. That's part of my health care plan."
- Romney positioned himself as a champion of Medicare: "If the president were to be re-elected, you’re going to see a $716 billion cut to Medicare. You'll have 4 million people who will lose Medicare advantage. You'll have hospitals and providers that'll no longer accept Medicare patients. I'll restore that $716 billion to Medicare."
- Romney extolled the virtues of bipartisan cooperation: "Republicans and Democrats both love America, but we need to have leadership—leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done and could not care less if it's a Republican or a Democrat. I've done it before. I'll do it again."
To give you a sense of just how eager Romney was to move to the middle, you may remember that the day after the debate he told Sean Hannity that he would have completely renounced his 47 percent comments, even though he'd been defending them just days earlier. Obviously Romney's move to the middle was baloney, but because President Obama decided against making an aggressive rebuttal during the debate, Romney's campaign suddenly had new life.
Despite having taken severely conservative policy positions throughout the campaign, Romney had presented himself during the debate as a moderate and he was rewarded for it with a huge bump in the polls. But despite this success, Romney still had a problem: Voters may have liked the Moderate Mitt that emerged at the debate, but his severely conservative alter ego was still alive and well. True, Severely Conservative Mitt was in hiding, but as soon as President Obama and his campaign began reminding voters about the other side of Mitt's mouth, his numbers began to snap back to reality.
In the end, short of having run a primary campaign that would have resulted in defeat, there's nothing Romney could have done to make Severely Conservative Mitt disappear completely. The only question was whether the Obama campaign would be able to remind voters that Romney's journey to the middle was a fraud. Ultimately, they managed to do it. But one thing is clear: If Mitt Romney had somehow been able to convince voters that Moderate Mitt was the real Mitt, he would have had a much better shot at winning yesterday's election.