WASHINGTON -– One of the first clues that President Barack Obama intended to paint Mitt Romney as a right wing extremist came during his remarks at a $10,000-a-head fundraiser on April 10 in South Florida.
"This election will probably have the biggest contrast that we’ve seen maybe since the Johnson-Goldwater election," Obama said to about 60 supporters at a lunch in the exclusive Frenchman's Reserve neighborhood in Palm Beach Gardens.
Obama's top White House adviser, David Plouffe, directly compared Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, to Barry Goldwater -– the former Arizona senator and 1964 Republican nominee for president -– in a New York Times interview Friday.
Politico reported Monday that the Obama reelection campaign was moving away from an argument that Romney lacks a "core," instead trying to frame him as the "severe conservative" he claimed to be in February.
But this strategy has produced a much-remarked upon dissonance in the president's reelection message. The lack of coherence was on display just 36 hours after Obama made his Goldwater comparison in Florida. The morning of April 12, the Obama campaign sent reporters a 3-minute video highlighting the anniversary of the health care overhaul that Romney signed into law as governor of Massachusetts in 2006.
The video drove home the message that Romney's health care law was the basis for the national law that Obama signed into law in 2010. And it criticized him for campaigning against the law now known as Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act.
"He's jumping to a political position where the issue isn't health care, it's getting elected," said Madelyn Rhenisch, a Massachusetts woman in the video who said Romneycare has helped her.
But this was a much different message than comparing Romney to Goldwater. The video sent the message that Romney was, in fact, a moderate Republican on the same page as Democrats regarding health care until he decided to flip-flop on the issue and run against Obamacare for political convenience.
It fit the attack on Romney that the Obama team has waged for much of the past year, that he has no "core" beliefs and no principles.
In Boston, the Romney campaign headquarters has watched the shifting messages from its counterpart with a mixture of surprise and satisfaction. There is a sense, in private conversations, that the Obama reelection campaign is perhaps not as formidable as once thought.
Even allies of the Obama campaign are second-guessing the reelection team's strategy.
"I understand the desire of the Obama campaign to tie Romney to some of the extreme right wing policies that he voiced support for earlier in the campaign. But as someone who first began watching Romney during the '94 Senate campaign, when I worked for Senator Kennedy, I really think that Romney is vulnerable to the charge that he is a flip-flopper with no core conviction," said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and now senior director at QGA Public Affairs.
Obama campaign officials said they can talk about both the flip-flopping and the hardline conservative positions on immigration and abortion that Romney has taken, because it is all part of what they want to make a question of character.
Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Protect Your Care, a group set up to defend the ACA, has rarely missed an opportunity over the past year to point out Romney's past support for one of the most controversial aspects of Obamacare: the mandate for individuals to buy health insurance.
He has not sent out an e-mail on the topic since April 10, but Vale told The Huffington Post that there is no conflict between the Obama campaign's attempt to cast Romney as a right-winger and the focus on pointing out Romney's support for a mandate.
"What we were talking about in the past seven or eight months is, the health care law, and the mandate, the policy itself, is something that was a bipartisan consensus idea," Vale said. "The Heritage Foundation came up with this. (Newt) Gingrich has supported it in the past."
"The big thing we wanted to show, is that this law isn't, you know, Stalinist single payer health care system, but that it was a totally common bipartisan law," he said.
In Vale's view, the Romney-as-right-winger argument meshes well with talking about health care. It just reinforces the idea that the president's signature legislative achievement is not the left-wing bill that Republicans say it is.
That was the point Plouffe seemed to be making in late March when he called Romney the "godfather of the mandate."
But practically, arguing that Romney is the second coming of Goldwater while talking about how he backed what became the model for Obamacare communicates more than anything that the Republican candidate is a flip-flopper with no real core convictions. If the campaign wants to argue that Romney is a right-wing zealot, it will have to figure out how to do so in a way that conveys the nuanced caveat that his staunch conservatism is nothing more than an act.
How the Obama campaign talks about health care –- whether it continues to hit Romney for his support of a mandate or not -– will be a key indicator of which strategy it settles on. If it continues to harp on the mandate, it will be a sign the campaign is going with the "no core" message over the Goldwater comparison.
If the campaign leaves the mandate and Romneycare alone, that will signal a commitment to the winger argument, even if it means giving up one of the most powerful and commonly made critiques of Romney as a leader.