10/01/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

As the Polyjuice Potion Wears Off, Will We Find Out Who Mitt Romney Really Is?

Rush Limbaugh lost it last week. After a spate of polls suggested that Mitt Romney was losing ground in his presidential campaign, Limbaugh pronounced rampant poll bias to be nothing less than an organized voter suppression conspiracy.

To his credit, it had been a bad week, and while Republican pundits were turning their fire from Obama to their own nominee, El Rushbo was working to rally the troops. Limbaugh has long been the heart and soul of the Republican Party, and almost singlehandedly lifted the party out of its deep stupor with his CPAC speech in the wake of Barack Obama's victory in 2008.

The failure of the Romney campaign is spreading to the hinterlands. Perhaps an unintended consequence of running a campaign based on being Not Obama, the Republican standard bearer has left the party without a clear, defining case against Democrats on down ballot races. The lack of a defining, pro-growth Republican message has left their Senate candidates with a serious message gap, from Massachusetts, where Scott Brown has been left to argue whether Elizabeth Warren looks like an American Indian, to Montana, where the rap against Jon Tester is whether he is Montana enough.

Over the past week, Romney has walked back his stance on two positions that have been among the central rationales for his campaign: The repeal of Obamacare and tax cuts. Standing before a candidate forum sponsored by Univision -- the Hispanic-focused media company -- Romney embraced his role as the "Grandfather of Obamacare." As if to double down on the doubt his remarks would foment in the minds of conservatives, Romney was quick to point out that he did not embrace credit for Obamacare during the primaries, as "we thought it might not be helpful."

Then, speaking in Ohio a few days later, Romney tempered his tax cut promises as he emphasized that he was proposing to cut tax rates, but that would not necessarily translate into reductions in individual tax liabilities. This was not news for those who were paying attention, as he has always insisted that he intended to reduce deductions and exemptions to maintain both the revenues and progressivity of the current tax code. But for conservatives with visions of Ronald Reagan and Jude Wanniski dancing in their heads, Romney's words were apostasy.

The Mitt Romney that poked his head out of the ground last week was not the Mitt Romney that Republican activists presumed that they nominated. Like one whose Polyjuice Potion was wearing off, we saw glimpses once again of the Romney that once was -- and that Romney's primary opponents long warned against. He showed evident pride in the universal healthcare program he created as governor of Massachusetts, and he spoke the truth about his view on taxes, which is that he believes in the urgency of tax reform and simplification, but is not a supply sider who advocates tax cuts without regard to fiscal consequences.

Throughout this political season, observers have sought to find the recent presidential campaign that could provide an analogy to this one. Romney supporters have long clung to the notion of 1980 as the preferred analogy, when Ronald Reagan surged ahead late to defeat an incumbent Jimmy Carter who failed to lift the national economy. Others have pointed to the 2004 Bush-Kerry contest, where a flip-flopping challenger failed to gain the credibility to mount an effective challenge.

But 1988 may provide a more apt analogy. That year, the challenger Michael Dukakis led George H.W. Bush through most of the summer, before Bush stormed to the lead for good by September. The key to the Bush victory was its success in defining Dukakis as a weak leader whose liberalism trumped his judgement. The campaign marked the apotheosis of political strategist Lee Atwater, whose Willie Horton ad was the defining tactic of that campaign.

Defining one's opponent in presidential contests is a long-cherished strategy, and bi-partisan strategy. Years before Atwater succeeded in making Willie Horton into Michael Dukakis' running mate, Lyndon Johnson used the ad "Daisy" to undermine Barry Goldwater's leadership credentials. This year, the Obama campaign gained the upper hand on the Romney campaign through with an ad campaign over the summer targeting the battleground states. Those ads successfully redefined Romney from a man who in Bill Clinton's words had a "sterling business career" to a Gordon Gekko character.

But reframing efforts only succeed when they ring true, when they touch a nerve in the mind of the electorate about the target candidate. The Johnson campaign juxtaposition of the girl picking daisies against a nuclear explosion played upon Goldwater's famous remarks in his nomination acceptance speech that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." Similarly, Dukakis made good on the caricature painted of him by Atwater, most famously in his unemotional response to a debate question about the rape and murder of his wife. In Romney's case, the Obama campaign caricature of him blossomed in response to Romney's own words in the 47 percent video.

Somehow it seems fitting that the Obama campaign gained the upper hand through harsh -- and in the view of some inaccurate -- attack ads. After all, Obama has endured relentless attacks on his character and his legitimacy as president. But it may be that the continued assaults of the birthers ultimately undermined the credibility of other attacks on the president that might otherwise have done greater damage. In any event, if the best the Romney campaign could come up with was a 15-year-old video of Barack Obama confessing to believe in the redistribution of wealth, they clearly left their most effective material on the cutting room floor.

Yet what is most remarkable is that for all the apparent deficiencies of the Romney campaign, Romney is only five points down in the latest Gallup tracking poll of registered voters, and just over one week ago the race was a dead heat. The change this past week that got Limbaugh and others unglued was in the battleground states where Obama appears to have put some distance between Romney and himself.

It remains to be seen how the debates affect the last weeks of the campaign. It is conceivable that Romney could yet find himself and break out of the bizarre trap he has found himself in between who he is and the persona he sold to win the nomination. In 1988, Michael Dukakis ultimately threw away his script in the closing weeks of the campaign, and became himself, and in the closing weeks of the campaign he closed the gap. If the past week is any indication, Mitt Romney is chomping at the bit to tell us who he really is. And the media, which always loves a new story line, would embrace a new/old Romney, and would suddenly point out the flaws in the President that to date they have preferred to ignore.

But it would be a tougher journey for Romney than it was to for the earlier Massachusetts governor. Unlike Dukakis, whose populist rhetoric in the end stage of his campaign marked a return to the warm embrace of the Democrat base, Romney would have to take the harder step of abandoning the base -- who always knew he was not one of them -- and move toward the foreign and deeply reviled land of the political center.

It might be where he belongs, it might be where he is comfortable, but there is no going back now. If Mitt Romney tries to reverse course now, the rage from his party will be titanic, because, as Barry Goldwater might have said, moderation in pursuit of victory is no virtue.