FAIRFAX, Va. -- Forget the pundits from both parties who chided Mitt Romney for his knee-jerk criticism suggesting President Obama sympathized with anti-American attackers in the Middle East. The crowd that came out to see Romney here on Thursday under a cloudless sky was hungry for more.
“I loved when he said that,” said Lena Gude, a 53-year-old homemaker in this northern Virginia suburb who watched the clash between Romney, Obama and their teams unfold on Fox News. “I’m done apologizing for being American.”
But against the backdrop of a huge American flag, Romney backed off his strident rhetoric from the previous day, a tacit admission that he needs to reach a more moderate audience than the Republican faithful who turn out for campaign rallies on a weekday afternoon. After sending condolences to the families of the four American diplomats killed in Libya, Romney quickly changed the subject to what polls show is Obama’s real vulnerability: the economy.
“Let me talk about something else, and that is today we saw the headlines in USA Today, and they said the median income in America has dropped by $4,300 per family,” he said, hours after his campaign began airing a new television ad that accuses Obama of “failing American workers.”
Romney’s hastily-recalibrated message illustrates the tricky balancing act facing him and Obama in the final two months of the race. Both candidates are anxious to mobilize their parties' traditionally loyal constituencies; for example, polls show Hispanic voters, women, and young people are not as enthused about Obama as they were in 2008, while Romney, a Mormon who governed Massachusetts as a moderate, has struggled to earn the trust of Christian conservatives.
At the same time, both Obama and Romney need to penetrate the narrow band of undecided voters who prefer straight talk over chest-thumping. In Virginia, these swing voters anointed Obama in 2008 as the first Democratic nominee since 1964 to win the state, then switched their allegiances to elect Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009.
Those at the rally were overwhelmingly white, mostly retirees and stay-at-home moms with toddlers in tow, and did not represent the state’s increasingly diverse electorate. “I’m counting on you, Virginia.... Find someone who voted for Barack Obama and get them to join our team,” Romney told the crowd estimated at more than 2,000 gathered at a public park.
But when faced with the choice of appealing to the Republican base or reaching out to moderates who once backed Obama, Romney has frequently chosen the former. In his most high-profile decision as the nominee, he picked an ideologically-driven congressman, Paul Ryan, as his running mate. More recently, after softening his opposition to Obama’s health care overhaul on a Sunday talk show, he reiterated the mantra of the tea party movement -- to repeal the Affordable Care Act “entirely” -- one day later.
“Romney can only win by appealing to independents and moderates, and he can’t do that with a partisan message,” said Bob Holsworth, founder of the Virginia Tomorrow political website. “It would not have been good for Romney to double down on what he said yesterday about the president in the Middle East.”
Even some Republicans criticized Romney for lambasting the president at a sensitive time when the number of deaths, who had been killed, and the nature of the attackers were still unknown. Romney’s campaign pushed back, yet the nominee chose his words more carefully on Thursday, calling for a stronger military and only implicitly going after Obama’s foreign policy.
“As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we’re at the mercy of events instead of shaping events,” Romney said. “The Middle East needs American leadership, and I intend to be a president that provides the leadership America respects and will keeps us admired throughout the world.”
That wasn’t the tough talk some people in the audience had hoped to hear. Many wore bright orange stickers from the National Rifle Association that read “Defend freedom. Defeat Obama.” A heckler in the crowd who accused Romney of “politicizing” the violence in Libya was drowned out by chants of “USA! USA! USA!”
“Romney needs to speak up more about foreign policy,” said 75-year-old Sophie Nicholson, wearing a straw hat and dark glasses to shield her from the noonday sun. “What happened in the Middle East was horrible, and Obama goes on another apology tour? It’s embarrassing.”
In fact, the White House disavowed a statement from the Egyptian embassy condemning "religious incitement" -- an apparent reference to an inflammatory anti-Muslim film -- issued hours before protesters scaled the walls of the Cairo compound and attackers killed four diplomats in Benghazi. Obama also said on Wednesday from the Rose Garden that “there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None.” But it is an article of faith among conservatives like Nicholson that the president has insulted U.S. allies and appeased its enemies, weakening America’s status as a global power.
“Blogs and the conservative leaders of the party were crazy about what Romney said,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “They want him to be even harder on Obama. The real question is what the small percentage of undecided voters think, because despite what everyone may think, this election will be won in the middle.”