ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—Four years ago, Mitt Romney was criticized as a man without a message, a presidential candidate straight from the heart of corporate America who was good at making lists and delivering PowerPoint presentations but not so great at explaining exactly why he should be the next president.
His initial slogan in 2008—"True Strength for America's Future"—was vague. And his push to focus on "innovation and transformation"—which advisers back then initially claimed as his chief focus—fell flat. To make up ground, Romney moved to the right, running away from his record as a moderate—a push that earned him a reputation as a phony that doomed his first bid for the Republican nomination.
But as Romney nears the end of his second campaign for the White House, there has been no mistaking the core argument for his candidacy. Speaking this weekend to a crowd of 17,000 people in this battleground district in a swing state, Romney used the word "change" no less than a dozen times—arguing that, if elected, he would bring "real change" and "big change."
"The question of this election comes down to this: Do you want more of the same or do you want real change?" Romney said, speaking against the backdrop of an enormous sign that read, "Real Change on Day One."
"President Obama promised change, but he could not deliver it," Romney said. "I promise change, and I have a record of achieving it."
To hear Romney on the stump over the past few weeks has been to experience a flashback of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. At virtually every stop, the Republican presidential nominee has spoken of the need for a "new beginning" and of the "movement" he's leading toward the White House. He's transformed a stump speech that four years ago was heavy on lists of talking points on at least a dozen policies into something not unlike a motivational speech. Romney has become a storyteller, talking about the people he's met on his long road to the presidency or the people he's helped in his personal life. He tries to sell voters on his vision of the future, describing the election as a quest for "American greatness" and the desire for a "better tomorrow."
"Obama had his moment, and he's offered 'more of the same,'" Stuart Stevens, Romney's chief strategist, told Yahoo News, using a phrase that James Carville made famous as one of the three core messages of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign: "It's the economy, stupid"; "change versus more of the same"; and "don't forget health care."
The Romney campaign has in essence landed on the same message: the economy, change, and don't forget Obamacare.
"This is our moment," Stevens said, "and we think people want something different than the last four years."
Romney's embrace of the "change" argument seems to have driven his rise in the polls in recent weeks, but it comes after months of what many Republicans criticized as a muddled message. For much of 2012, his campaign focused almost exclusively on the economy—arguing it would be the ultimate deciding factor of the election. Asked about other issues, including subjects like abortion or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Romney would often use the question to pivot back to his argument that he would be the best-positioned candidate to create jobs and get the economy back on track. Romney strayed from his economic message only a few times—mostly in the Republican primary when he fought off challenges from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich by arguing that he had been a "severely conservative" governor of Massachusetts.
But in keeping his focus on the economy, Romney downplayed what many considered his biggest strength in the race—his experience as a corporate turnaround artist at Bain Capital. The move allowed the Obama campaign and its Democratic allies to turn Romney's Bain experience into one of his greatest vulnerabilities, casting the candidate as a cold-blooded corporate type willing to ship American jobs overseas if it was better for the bottom line.
The attacks sent Romney's favorability numbers plummeting—and prompted anxiety within the campaign that he might not recover. Romney aides continue to defend the campaign's slow response, insisting it simply didn't have the money to run ads responding to the attacks.
But many insiders also point fingers at the candidate himself, who was initially reluctant to talk about his Bain experience or defend himself against Democratic attacks on his personal wealth.
"Believe it or not, Mitt actually is a modest guy," a longtime Romney adviser tells Yahoo News. "He doesn't like talking about his money. And I think he thought the Bain stuff would blow over. He thought it was a silly issue compared to 23 million unemployed and all of the other negatives of the Obama economy. ... I think a lot of us did. He was wrong, and we were wrong."
Yet onstage in recent weeks, Romney seems to have finally found his voice on the issue, delivering a simple and straightforward explanation of his resume.
"I built a business, and turned around another," Romney said at an appearance outside Milwaukee last week. "I helped put an Olympics back on track. And with a Democratic legislature, I helped turn my state from deficit to surplus, from job losses to job growth, and from higher taxes to higher take-home pay. This is why I am running for president. I know how to change the course the nation is on, how to get us to a balanced budget and how to build jobs and rising take-home pay."
A longtime Republican consultant close to the Romney campaign privately questioned why the candidate wasn't making this "simpler argument" earlier in the campaign. "If the Romney people have been seeing out there in the past few days would have shown up over the summer, this race might not be so close," the consultant, who declined to be named, told Yahoo News.
But other Romney aides argue that the candidate first needed to show his "real" side to voters—something his campaign could not afford to do until after the Republican convention.
"The message that works so well does so in part because the electorate finally has a sense of who he really is. Now that they do, the message and the messenger are integrated," Tom Rath, a New Hampshire political consultant and a longtime Romney adviser, told Yahoo News. "It is a great message, one that we always believed could win, but one that could only work when the voters felt they knew him well enough to make it credible."
In recent weeks, Romney has sounded a centrist tone, vowing to work with lawmakers "on both sides of the aisle who care more about country than politics." Obama is too politically radioactive to overcome the partisan gridlock of Washington, Romney regularly says.
"He will be unable to work with the people in Congress," he says. "He has ignored them, attacked them, blamed them. ... The president was right when he said he can't change Washington from the inside. ... You can take him at his word."
Stuart Stevens insists Romney's latest message isn't much different from speeches he gave early in his campaign—though Stevens acknowledges the word "change" wasn't as prominent.
"Campaigns aren't static, otherwise no one would listen to you," Stevens told Yahoo News. But, he added, Obama gave Romney an opportunity to play the "change" card by not presenting a clearer picture of what he would do with a second term.
"That was a huge opportunity for us," Stevens said. "It allowed us to present the contrast between us and them. ... In a campaign, you have different moments to say different things."
Inside the campaign, aides view Romney as an agent of change not unlike Obama four years ago. They admit Romney will never inspire crowds like Obama did in '08, but in an argument Romney hopes will decide the election, they contend he can deliver on the change Obama promised to bring to Washington.
"Change is not a message that Barack Obama invented," Stevens said. "It's a message that he co-opted ... and a message he didn't deliver on. And Mitt Romney can."