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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney watches as balloons fall at the end of his speech to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 30, 2012. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney watches as balloons fall at the end of his speech to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 30, 2012. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

CLIFFORD ORWIN

Mitt’s compassionate moment Add to ...

The most exciting American presidential race in recent memory? Who knew?

Now that the contest has tightened, Tuesday night’s “town hall” debate may well prove pivotal. The first debate finally confirmed the feasibility of Mitt Romney’s candidacy, but might the second undo him? He now bears the burden of higher expectations, and President Barack Obama, stung out of his complacency, is bound to put up a more spirited fight. Will the two candidates emerge neck and neck, or will Mr. Obama succeed in restoring some distance between them? Or might Mr. Romney actually accelerate his surge?

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Because many found Mr. Obama’s performance in the first debate so disappointing, there has been much speculation about his tactics in this one. In particular, he has been criticized for not belabouring Mr. Romney for his remarks about the “47 per cent” (of Americans who pay no federal income tax) and other utterances deemed uncongenial to your typical voter.

You read it here first: Democratic peoples don’t elect heartless plutocrats as president.

Or perhaps you already knew that. Mr. Obama certainly did, and that’s been the core of his re-election campaign from the get-go. Mr. Romney’s most glaring weakness has been his lack of an antidote for such venom. Yet, one does exist. It is (or used to be) known as “compassionate conservatism.”

“Compassionate conservatism” is a page from George W. Bush’s playbook. His use of it in his 2000 presidential campaign was the culmination of the gradual emergence of a kinder, gentler Republicanism. This hadn’t been the doing of the liberal Republican establishment of that time, already largely eclipsed by the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan.

Most Republicans who expounded the new approach were, like Mr. Bush himself, socially conservative and averse to higher taxes. Yet, they cared about the poor (Jack Kemp, an early mainstay of the group, called himself a bleeding heart conservative) – just as Mr. Romney has now made a point of beginning to do. Although mostly evangelical Christians, they supported so-called Catholic social teaching, with its emphasis on “subsidiarity” or a public responsibility of last resort to help those in need. And (need I add), they were confident that their new zeal on behalf of the disadvantaged would help their party win close elections.

“Compassionate conservatism,” the main domestic plank of Mr. Bush’s 2000 campaign, helped him stake out a distinctive position in the Republican primaries that year, and to attract independents in his grinding struggle against Al Gore. Mr. Bush envisioned a program that would direct federal aid to grassroots social service agencies such as black and Hispanic churches. The poor would continue to help one another to overcome the problems that kept them in poverty. (It was Mr. Bush, not Mr. Obama, who first aspired to the role of America’s community organizer-in-chief.)

All this would be expensive, but, at that time, the Congressional Budget Office was predicting a decade of large federal surpluses. Mr. Bush estimated that his ambitious program would consume a 10th of them.

“Compassionate conservatism,” the program, drowned almost unnoticed in the vast tide of red ink that followed. The notion just barely survived in remote recesses of the Republican psyche. Mr. Romney is obviously in no position to make the kind of promises that Mr. Bush did. Yet, in the course of the first debate, he did evoke the image of the caring Republican. And with the U.S. middle class hurting as badly as it is, that image enjoys wider applicability.

Mr. Romney’s compassionate moment arose unexpectedly. Taking advantage of the studio backdrop to the debate (drawn from the manuscript copies of the nation’s founding documents), Mr. Romney did a little riff on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. When he turned to the right to the pursuit of happiness, he explicated it quite surprisingly as a universal duty of public care of those unable to care for themselves. He wasn’t eloquent (in fact, he tripped over his tongue), but perhaps seemed all the more sincere for that.

Will this help explain Mr. Romney’s success in the debate? Quite possibly. CNN charted the responses of some independent voters in Colorado. Men and women alike, they clicked this episode as the apex of Mr. Romney’s performance overall. The woman interviewed to explain this verdict expressed delight and surprise at this display of Mr. Romney’s concern for beleaguered Americans like herself. In the wider world, Mr. Romney has benefited from a diminution of the gender gap. We’ll see whether he continues down this trail Tuesday night – and whether Mr. Obama can obstruct him.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.

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