SIOUX CITY, IOWA--The last time Mitt Romney visited Sioux City, he delivered a speech aimed squarely at the social conservatives who dominate the region. He spoke passionately about his "moral convictions" and family values and reiterated his opposition to abortion, amid criticism of his late-in-life conversion on the issue.
But that was four years ago.
When Romney made his return to Western Iowa on Thursday, abortion came up only once, during a slightly awkward back and forth with a woman who pressed Romney on his stance on birth control.
"I don't (oppose birth control)," Romney insisted, obviously eager to change the subject. "Life begins at conception; birth control prevents conception."
Romney quickly navigated the focus back to the economy, the driving issue behind his second bid for the White House, and very much his preferred topic on the campaign trail.
In appearances throughout the day on Thursday, Romney stood before voters talking up his private-sector experience. And, in a page straight out of Barack Obama's 2008 playbook, he cast himself as a change agent determined to get the nation back on track, in part by working with both Republicans and Democrats in Washington.
"I don't think he's a bad guy," Romney told voters in Sioux City on Thursday, referring to Obama. "I just think he's in over his head . . . . Leadership is hard. Reaching across the aisle to people who disagree with you and finding common ground, that's tough. He hasn't been able to do those things."
While Romney's critique wasn't new, the way he delivered it was. Again and again, he played up his experience as governor of Massachusetts, when he was forced to work with a heavily Democratic state legislature. The experience, he said, taught him to find compromise without sacrificing his principles. While Obama ran as a consensus builder in 2008, Romney argued that he actually knows to reach effective accommodations with people on the other side of a critical issue.
"I like the president," he insisted. "I think he's a nice guy. But he's never led before . . . . I'm not saying I have the answer to all things. There are a lot of things I can be educated on . . . . But I know leadership."
Obama was a frequent target during Romney's trip through the state Thursday, but the ex-governor seemed determined not to press his criticisms of the president too far. Likewise, he mentioned none of his GOP rivals by name—a notable move coming just two days after a contentious back and forth with Rick Perry and other opponents at the Republican debate in Las Vegas.
No doubt Romney is trying to avoid being labeled the "angry" candidate—a label that former rival Mike Huckabee successfully used against him in the run-up to Iowa's 2008 caucuses.
But Romney's move also suggests he's looking to woo independents and moderate swing voters—a group that helped put Obama over the top four years ago but appears to be up for grabs heading into 2012.
The former governor's message seemed to resonate with Matt Winter, an attorney from Sibley, Iowa, who drove 90 minutes to hear Romney speak in Sioux City on Thursday morning.
Winter, a moderate Republican who said he thinks of himself more as an "independent," had previously supported George W. Bush and admired Romney heading into 2008 because of his record in Massachusetts.
"I very much liked him . . . . I thought he was a really good governor at working across the aisle," Winter told Yahoo News. "But I didn't think he brought that to the race four years ago."
In the end, he ended up crossing party lines to caucus for Obama, based on the Democratic candidate's message of change and consensus. But today, Winter says he's disillusioned with Obama because he feels the president didn't deliver on his promises of working with the opposing party. Now he's eying Romney again, whom he said might be the best choice for swing voters like himself.
"Circumstances have changed," he said. "The ability to talk across the aisle seems to have completely disappeared. As evidenced by what he said today, 'reaching across the aisle, reaching across the aisle,' I think Romney is coming back to his earlier message . . . which is where it seems he wants to be anyway."
On Thursday, Romney seemed to view the election as his to lose—even though his campaign has frequently insisted he isn't taking the primary campaign for granted. Speaking to a group of community leaders at a bank in tiny Treynor, Iowa, Romney seemed to be measuring the White House drapes.
"There's a good shot I might be the president of the United States," Romney said. "If I do, I will benefit from your thoughts."
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