Republican contender plays to public fears about economy and ditches social conservatism as he chases swing voters
The voice was hoarse, but that was the only sign that Mitt Romney was nearing the end of a gruelling tour through the battleground states that will decide who wins the White House. Wearing jeans and with sleeves rolled up, the Republican presidential hopeful bounded on stage in Davenport, Iowa, and launched a furious tirade on the only issue that matters: the ailing American economy.
He warned the 1,000-strong crowd – who had gathered in a park in the heart of this town on the Mississippi river – that Obama had failed to bring about a recovery. Sounding like a leftist populist, he bemoaned low-wage jobs, the collapsing wealth of the middle class and home foreclosures. He pinned the blame on Obama. "His record is not something that he can talk about. In his last campaign he had 'hope and change'. Now they are hoping to change the subject," he said.
Could Romney, a wealthy financier who has repeatedly defended big business and extolled the virtues of the free market, really become the beneficiary of a crisis of capitalism? He seems an unlikely champion of the "little guy". But in the furious cut-and-thrust of the 2012 election that does not matter.
Prospects for an Obama win have been buffeted by poor job figures and the threat of economic meltdown in Europe. Romney's team know that convincing America's swing voters that they might have better job prospects under Republican rule could turn the former Massachusetts governor into a president. The 2012 election is now up for grabs.
Arriving in Iowa on his "Every Town Counts" bus tour, Romney had already travelled through New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Just like Iowa, all are states Obama won in 2008 and that Romney is now hoping to win. In order to do so he appears to have jettisoned the social conservatism that marked his nomination race.
Instead, Romney tried an "I feel your pain" tactic of sympathising with economic hard times.
Farmer Linda Swiezcinsky, who cheerfully admitted to being a Michele Bachmann fan during the Republican party's bitter primary race, now wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with a giant portrait of Romney. "It is neck and neck at the moment but I think Romney will win," she said.
While Romney becomes more sure-footed, the Obama campaign lacks momentum. Despite recent policy shifts on issues including gay marriage and immigration, Obama's Democratic base remains much less enthusiastic than 2008. After he promised a "recovery summer" in 2010, America has remained economically sickly. Domestically, Obama's biggest legislative achievement has been healthcare reform. But the new law – under withering Republican fire – has become less popular and the supreme court could even strike it down as unconstitutional.
Obama's image as a likeable, liberal leader has also been eroded by rumours of aloofness and a ruthless expansion of hardline national security tactics from the George W Bush era, exemplified by the deployment of increasingly controversial drone strikes overseas. Recently three top Democratic strategists, including Bill Clinton's campaign guru, James Carville, drew up a memo warning that Obama might face an "impossible headwind" in the election.
The memo, based on focus groups from Ohio and Pennsylvania, found voters disliked Obama's message that the economy was slowly improving. "These voters are not convinced that we are headed in the right direction," the memo warned. Other experts agree that Obama's current plan of assuring American voters that things would have been worse without him – even if true – is not a winning strategy. "It is a challenge. Americans tend to be more: what have you done for me lately?" said Professor David Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio.
Jim Giese, who runs an Iowa roofing business, is certainly no fan of Obama. As Romney toured Iowa, Giese grabbed a place on a Mississippi boat trip the candidate was taking from Dubuque. As he walked to meet Romney on the old-fashioned paddle steamer berthed on Dubuque's waterfront he slammed Obama's handling of the economy.
"It is just trending in the wrong direction. Our margins are down and we have had to lay people off. The guy is a disaster," he said.
The mood among Romney advisers is buoyant and jibes at Obama are everywhere. "Before he was president he never managed anything bigger than his own narrative and now he's having a hard time managing this economy," said senior Romney adviser Russ Schriefer. In Davenport, Romney's Iowa campaign chairman, Brian Kennedy, pumped out the same relentless message. "For three-and-a-half years he has failed… that is our message. Let's take it to our friends and neighbours and church members and colleagues," he told the Davenport crowd.
The Romney campaign is rapidly earning a reputation for efficiency and a secretive style that maximises control of the message. His schedule is often released only a day or two before events and every effort is made to minimise unscripted interaction with the press. Reporters are shooed away from the "rope line" where candidates mingle with the public.
Romney himself is a private person who still often appears wooden in public, certainly when compared to Obama. But he has also showed himself – and his campaign – to be ruthless and hard-edged. In dealing with an unexpectedly raucous nomination fight, Romney's team showed it could play dirty and spend big when destroying rivals including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Though Romney's own efforts were often marred by gaffes, especially linked to his wealthy lifestyle, those mistakes have decreased markedly in recent weeks.
Of course, not everyone is convinced. National polls average out to have Obama with a narrow lead of a couple of percentage points, though an incumbent president would usually be expected to be performing more strongly at this point. In the small Iowa town of Solon, an hour or so's drive from Davenport, retired electrician Kent Connelly said he was not falling for Romney's schtick. "He does not come across as someone who cares that much. I see him as someone who will say anything to get elected," Connelly said.
And Solon definitely counts as somewhere suffering from hard times. Though Iowa's overall jobless rate is below the 8% national average, Solon's is a whopping 14.3%.
Freed up by a supreme court ruling, Republican-supporting groups are preparing to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the race. Last week alone three different TV ads began airing in swing states, all swiping at Obama over the economy. Some experts think Romney and his supporters could spend at least $1.25bn on TV ads.
"I can see a president getting bought into office," Connelly said.
If Romney generates enough support to grab the Oval Office, the swell of votes would certainly see Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives and might even see them grab the Senate. Then Romney would likely get at least one opportunity to appoint a supreme court judge in his first term, probably replacing one liberal justice. That would skew the court even more conservatively for a generation.
Romney thus could actually find himself in a position of immense Republican power. No wonder then that in Davenport he came on stage with such enthusiasm. "This is the wind of change, you know that?" he beamed.