Romney tries image makeover, stressing empathy for average Americans

Mitt Romney speaking to supporters in Toledo, Ohio Wednesday
AP Photo/Rick Osentoski

(CBS News) TOLEDO, Ohio - Although the message may not have been written on a cue card, the Romney campaign took a page out of the 1992 playbook of George H.W. Bush on Wednesday, launching a new charm offensive meant to appeal directly to those who were turned off by his comments at a private fundraiser about "the 47 percent." The message: I care.

Faced with his own image problems in 1992, the first President Bush made a now-infamous gaffe on the campaign trail when he mistakenly read out loud the stage directions on cue cards given to him. "Message: I care," he declared.

With new polls showing that more Americans view the current Republican nominee less favorably after hearing him call Mr. Obama's supporters people "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims," Romney spent much of his day on Wednesday trying to project an image of empathy for the average American.

His campaign released a one-minute ad that shows him speaking directly into the camera. He even went so far as to cite the health care law he passed while Governor of Massachusetts as an example of his compassion for those in need.

"Don't forget - I got everybody in my state insured," Romney said in an interview with NBC News. "One hundred percent of the kids in our state had health insurance. I don't think there's anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record."

The comment marked a rare public embrace of his signature health care law, which is considered by many to have been a road map for the president's Affordable Care Act. Shortly after making the comments, Romney offered a sharp rebuke of the president's law during remarks at a Toledo rally, saying he would "repeal Obamacare and replace it with real health care reform."

Romney has spent much of the past week struggling to overcome a negative impression left by comments he made at a private fundraiser and captured on video, in which he said, "There are 47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them."

Taking full advantage of the opportunity, the Obama campaign launched an ad with Romney's remarks on Tuesday. In the ad, an announcer says, "When Mitt Romney dismissed 47 percent of Americans for not pulling their weight, he attacked millions of hard working people making 25-, 35-, 45 thousand dollars a year."

Picture shows a softer side of Mitt Romney

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The Romney campaign responded with an ad of its own Wednesday, talking about Americans who are struggling. "Too many of those who are working are living paycheck to paycheck, trying to make falling incomes meet rising prices for food and gas," a somber Romney says to the camera.

Romney tells the audience that both he and Mr. Obama care about the poor and middle class, but says it is his policies that will make things better for both groups.

"We shouldn't measure compassion by how many people are on welfare," Romney says in the advertisement. "We should measure compassion by how many people are able to get off welfare and get a good paying job."

This message of Romney-the-empathizer carried over into Romney's stump speech on Wednesday. Speaking in Toledo on Wednesday night, the Republican nominee told the crowd that he meets struggling Americans all across the country.

"Most people that you see have some real challenges in their life of one kind of another," he said. "I understand that."

Romney acknowledged that the government can play a useful role in helping those who are in need.

"We have people that are hurting, we have people who are disabled and people who are poor, they need our help and they receive our help," Romney said. "We're a charitable people." But at the same time, Romney said, "We're going to insist that these people have the opportunity for work if they can carry out work, if they're able-bodied. Because we are not going to create a society of dependence on government."

In response to the new offensive, the Obama campaign sent an end-of-day statement titled "Romney's 'empathetic' rhetoric doesn't match up with reality."

"Mitt Romney is working overtime to rehabilitate his image after being caught writing off half of all Americans to a room of high-dollar donors. But his warm and fuzzy rhetoric doesn't match up with his policies, principles, or priorities," Obama for America Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter wrote in a statement on Wednesday night.

"In fact, while Mitt Romney held up the Massachusetts health care law as evidence of his empathy for people, minutes later he promised to repeal Obamacare, which is modeled after his own law," she wrote. "It's not empathetic to deny affordable health coverage to tens of millions of Americans, allow insurance companies to discriminate against Americans with pre- existing conditions or charge women higher premiums than men because of a pregnancy. It's troubling that Mitt Romney thinks it is."

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    Sarah Huisenga is covering the Mitt Romney campaign for CBS News and National Journal.