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Romney's New Role: Agent of Change

Romney, getting down to business. (Getty Images)

By Michael D. Shear
BEDFORD, N.H. -- As he seeks to recover from his Iowa defeat, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has completely reinvented his stump speech, turning throw-away lines from his speeches of the past month into the central theme of his candidacy.

Gone is the discussion of how important it is for young people to "get married before they have babies." Gone is the story about his father's main accomplishment being raising his four sons. Gone is the shtick about how Midwestern values are the same as heartland values and Yankee values.

In their place is a desperate attempt to convince people that Romney is the Republican equivalent of Barack Obama and John Edwards, the only candidate who can bring radical change to a Washington establishment that is mired in bureaucracy and old thinking.

"We need someone who can come to Washington, shake the place up and has a can-do attitude and get things done," a slightly congested Romney told a packed house party Saturday afternoon. "Washington is singularly unsuccessful in dealing with the problems America faces."

That's a new theme for a candidate who has spent the last six months defending President Bush, and Washington, against Democratic attacks. Until now, his stump speech would usually include a robust defense of Bush for keeping the country safe in the years since Sept. 11, 2001.

Romney aides insist that the change message is not a new one for Romney, who has often mentioned his success in helping to turn around the Olympics. "We've added some exclamation points to the argument that governor Romney has been making since the start of his campaign," said spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.

Fehrnstrom noted that Romney announced his campaign at the Henry Ford Museum, a place honoring change and innovation.

But in truth, Romney never emphasized those themes, focusing instead on trying to sell himself as the "true conservative" in a race dominated by candidates whose conservative credentials were suspect. That message ran headfirst into former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in Iowa.

Now, running against Sen. John McCain, Romney is attempting to cast himself as the only outsider willing to take on the corruption and special interests.

"I spent my life changing things. I did not spend my life in politics, talking about changing things," he told the crowd in Bedford. "We're not going to see fundamental change in Washington if we send the same faces and ask them to take different chairs."

That is aimed directly at McCain, a veteran of nearly three decades in the Senate. But the sudden shift in message may not work for Romney.

While McCain is a longtime senator, he also has a reputation for being a maverick there. The people of New Hampshire, especially, are aware of McCain's history of bucking the establishment -- that's why they voted for him in such great numbers in 2000.

McCain's campaign has found an easy response: "It is laughable that Mitt Romney would think anyone buys his latest act as an agent of change," spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker told the Associate Press. "The only thing he's ever changed are his positions on nearly every important issue."

Also, Romney's message on the air does not yet match his message on the stump. His attack ads still go after McCain for his positions on illegal immigration and taxes. And new commercial released Saturday talks about the need for a strong America, but doesn't mention change once.

Aides say the message has changed in emphasis because New Hampshire is a different kind of a state. 'We're closing hard with change in New Hampshire," Fehrnstrom said.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 5, 2008; 1:58 PM ET
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