Perils of Debating 'Etch A Sketch' Romney

Was Barack Obama caught off guard at the first debate when his opponent made a shift toward the center?

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(The Root) -- President Barack Obama got the switch from Mitt Romney, who, until their encounter at last night's debate, had baited his hook as a conservative during 23 primary debates with GOP opponents campaigning to his right and under the swoon of the Tea Party.

Working mightily during the primary to obscure his moderate record as the 70th governor of Massachusetts, Romney several times touted the line, "I've spent my entire career in the private sector."  

Debating the moderate president he seeks to replace, however, Gov. Romney boldly discussed his lone public-sector job. And while GOP opponents had driven him into defilade by bringing up his "mandated health care" in Massachusetts, President Obama found him aggressive on the subject -- expansive, even.

"The best course for health care is to do what we did in my state," Romney volunteered. "Craft a plan at the state level that fits the needs of the state ... then focus on getting the costs down for people." Hesitant all night in engaging his opponent, Obama reminded us that his Affordable Care Act -- which, if elected, Romney promises to dismantle -- is essentially the one Romney had just bragged about.    

"The irony is that we've seen ['Obamacare'] work really well in Massachusetts, because Governor Romney did a good thing, working with Democrats in the state to set up what is essentially the identical model, and as a consequence people are covered there. It hasn't destroyed jobs. And as a consequence, we now have a system in which we have the opportunity to start bringing down costs, as opposed to just leaving millions of people out in the cold," the president said.

"I like the way we did it in Massachusetts," Romney boasted, in a manner that he didn't dare risk in the presence, say, of Newt Gingrich during the GOP primaries.

After quibbling about a federal health care board and the president's inability to get Republicans' support, Romney then cherry-picked two nonconservative aspects of "Obamacare" that he would preserve: retention of adult offspring on their parents' insurance policies and coverage for pre-existing conditions -- both key aspects of Obama's plan.

What unfolded before our very eyes onstage at Denver's Magness Arena last night was a retrofitted Mitt Romney freed of all but the carry-on baggage of the hard-eyed, Tea Party-dominated Republican Party. He held to shuttering PBS and giving Big Bird a pink slip: "I'm gonna stop the subsidy to PBS," he told moderator Jim Lehrer -- of PBS. "I like Big Bird. I actually like you, too," he added, offering a glimpse of the Bain Capital executive who "likes being able to fire people."  

However, unlike the Republican he portrayed in the primaries, Romney swung uncharacteristically straight at Wall Street. "Regulation is essential," he said in terms that might rattle his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (D-Wis.), and the Tea Party. "You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulations." 

This bait and switch performance was signaled in March by Romney's key strategist Eric Fehrnstrom when CNN asked whether his candidate's hard-core conservative positions taken during the primary would hurt him with moderates in the campaign against Obama.  

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