WASHINGTON -- So long, flip-flopper. Hello, right-wing extremist.
Mitt Romney may be inclined to start moving to the political center now that he's practically got the Republican nomination won and done, but the Obama campaign would much rather keep him right where he's been for the past few months: in the conservative territory he staked out while battling for Republican primary voters.
After months of depicting Mr. Romney as the ultimate squishy, double-talking, no-core soul, Team Obama is shifting gears. Senior administration officials, along with Democratic and campaign officials, all say their strategy moving forward will be to tell the world that Mr. Romney has a core after all -- and it's deep red.
Mr. Romney's overheard remarks at a fund-raiser in Florida on Sunday night that, if elected, he planned to slash government programs (though he has not spelled that out for the voters) gave Obama backers the perfect opening, and they jumped on it. "Mitt Romney Tells Rich Voters His Secret Plan to Cut Housing Assistance," said a headline from ThinkProgress, a blog put out by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Democratic officials followed that up with a call to reporters on Thursday charging that Mr. Romney's proposal would "cut critical funds for homeless veterans."
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama's advisers saw another chance, and they were all over that, too. Just hours after Mr. Romney accepted the endorsement of Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, the Democratic National Committee was out with an ad "Mitt Romney and Tom Corbett: Too Extreme for Women." The ad featured the traditional spooky music accompanying video of Mr. Corbett defending his advocacy of a proposal that could make women undergo ultrasounds before receiving abortions, and saying women could "close their eyes" if they didn't want to see what was on the screen.
"Did Mitt Romney close his eyes to accept this endorsement?" the D.N.C. said in an e-mail it helpfully sent to reporters trumpeting the advertisement. "Probably not, since Mitt Romney's positions mirror those of the extreme elements of his party," the e-mail continued, going on to list a host of conservative Romney positions that Democrats hope will alienate women.
For Mr. Obama, the decision to start going after Mr. Romney from the left is as much a logical evolution as is any attempt by Mr. Romney to the center. As the general election heats up, a central battlefield promises to be the fights for suburban women in crucial swing states like Florida, Ohio and Colorado, and both camps are now trying to prove their bona fides with those populations. When added to recent data that shows an increase in Hispanic voters in key states, the Obama campaign sees an opening to paint Mr. Romney as out of touch among both women and Hispanics.
So prepare for reminders from the Obama campaign that Mr. Romney proposed eliminating Title X, the only federal program devoted to family planning, that he suggested letting the foreclosure process "run its course and hit the bottom," and that he staked out a position on immigration that was to the right of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Prepare for reminders that Mr. Romney just agreed to be the commencement speaker at the conservative Liberty University; in fact, within minutes of Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.'s announcement on Thursday, Democratic operatives were e-mailing the news around.
"Mitt Romney has spent the last two years taking the most extreme positions of his party, whether it's on economic policy or social policy," said Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager of Mr. Obama's re-election team. "He can try to flip-flop to the center, but who is going to believe him? He's just spent years bowing down to the right wing, and why would anyone believe he wouldn't continue doing that in Washington?"
David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser, said in a telephone interview, "Whether it's tax policy, whether it's his approach to abortion, gay rights, immigration, he's the most conservative nominee that they've had going back to Goldwater." He added that "one of the key issues in the campaign is to make sure people know that."
But what about David Axelrod's Twitter feed, which has, nonstop for the past few months, seemed fixated on a depiction of Mr. Romney as the ultimate feather in the wind? ("Yesterday, Mitt predicted victory. Today, he says 3d would be fine. He can't even stick to the same position on THAT!" Mr. Axelrod, an Obama adviser, on the morning of the Iowa caucuses back in January.)
Obama strategists insist they're not flip-flopping on the flip-flopper label, which they believe can serve them well at any given moment. But there appears to be a clear realization that for their particular general election purposes, they may do better with an emphasis on Mr. Romney's conservative stances.
The reason goes back to the very thing that has, all along, made Mr. Romney the candidate whom the Obama campaign has always viewed as the most formidable out of the Republican herd. Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, the architect of a health care plan which is remarkably similar to Mr. Obama's signature domestic policy item, is still viewed among many independents as something of a moderate, and as such, he is more dangerous to Mr. Obama in a general election than the rest of the Republican field.
That viewpoint made Mr. Romney vulnerable during the Republican primaries and at least partly explains his fierce embrace of conservative positions to offset Republican doubts. But it may make him tougher to beat in November. Mr. Romney himself seemed to acknowledge his need to move to the center during his overheard remarks on Sunday, when he told supporters that "we have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party," and warned that big Latino support for Mr. Obama "spells doom for us." While he did not explicitly endorse a Republican proposal to chart a path to legality for the offspring of illegal residents, he didn't dismiss the idea either.
Romney campaign officials say that attempts to paint their candidate as an extremist will not fly. "They are grasping at straws," said Andrea Saul, Mr. Romney's spokeswoman. "The Obama campaign first said President Obama was going to run on his record and the election would be a referendum on his handling of the economy. When it was clear that wouldn't work, his team said they were going to adopt a 'Kill Mitt' strategy. Then came the plan to run against President Bush again, and then, against Congress. Next they tried to claim Governor Romney had no core."
Ms. Saul said that while "each new day brings a different made-up attack from the Obama campaign, what doesn't change is the fact that President Obama has failed and so is going to try to tear down Mitt Romney instead of talking about his record."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.