By Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A beaming Mitt Romney made a surprise visit to a meeting of conservative activists in Denver on Thursday, telling the group that his debate with President Barack Obama the night before had given voters "a choice between two different visions for America."
During the first of three debates between the two presidential candidates, Romney himself appeared to have made a few choices, less than five weeks before the November 6 election.
On issues from taxes to Medicare to financial regulations, the former Massachusetts governor steered a more moderate course than he did while wooing conservatives during the Republican primaries this year, even embracing parts of Obama's record that have been targets for conservative Republicans.
At one point, Romney suggested that he would not change the amount of taxes paid for by high-income Americans. That contrasts with the plan Romney has touted for months - which would cut all Americans' tax rates by 20 percent - and is more in line with Obama's plan to give tax cuts only to those with annual incomes of less than $250,000.
Romney also stepped onto more moderate ground after Obama questioned why big, highly profitable oil companies should get massive tax breaks. Romney said he would consider cutting tax subsidies for oil companies.
He cast himself as a defender of Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, by saying he would restore $716 billion in spending to it - a move that analysts say would require dramatic cuts to other federal programs.
Romney - a wealthy former private equity executive who has touted his record in business - also said he liked parts of the Dodd-Frank bill, a 2010 law that increases the government's oversight of the U.S. financial sector, and which Romney has vowed to repeal.
During the primaries many conservative Republicans were suspicious of Romney's conservative credentials, largely because of his moderate record in Massachusetts.
But no Republicans seemed to be complaining Thursday, after Romney's aggressive performance in the Denver debate gave new life to his struggling campaign and raised the prospect that he could come from behind and defeat Obama next month.
Political analysts said it was clear that Romney's new positions threw off Obama during the debate, and they wondered whether conservatives might eventually have some regrets if Romney means what he said on Wednesday.
Romney "has to worry that his conservative base will wake up from their celebrations tomorrow and ask, 'Did Romney really say that about Medicare, taxes, and Dodd-Frank?'" said Larry Berman, a political science professor at Georgia State University. "Romney took positions that are in stark contrast to where his base thought he stood."
Romney's hedge toward the middle was particularly intriguing when he discussed the Dodd-Frank law, which many Republicans say is an overreach by government that will hurt the economy.
He complained that it offered too much protection to big banks, a populist-sounding argument that surprised many in the banking industry. Romney also praised various aspects of the law, including a section that sets mortgage-lending standards.
"We are not going to get rid of all regulation," Romney said. "You have to have regulation and there are some parts of Dodd-Frank that make all the sense in the world."
While Romney has softened his tone, his vice presidential running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, has continued to bash the Dodd-Frank law.
In Fort Collins, Colorado, last week, Ryan used the name of the bill's co-author, Democratic Representative Barney Frank, as a punch line.
"You ever heard of a guy named Barney Frank?" Ryan asked. The crowd booed.
SEEKING 'COMMON GROUND'
Romney, toning down the rhetoric he uses before crowds of conservative Republicans, seemed to make a point of sounding conciliatory during the debate.
He said that if elected he would meet with Democratic leaders in Congress to try to find "common ground."
Republicans may take solace in the fact that Romney's calls for bipartisanship come as he tries to reach a different audience than the more conservative voters he courted during the primary campaign.
"I think there's a lot of Democrats he was talking to last night that voted for Obama and want something done," said Keith Nahigian, who managed Republican Representative Michele Bachman's presidential campaign.
Charlie Gerow, a former aide to Republican President Ronald Reagan, said "conservatives are going to give him a fair amount of latitude" to move toward the political center in this election.
"Because they want to win," Gerow said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Sam Youngman in Denver; editing by David Lindsey and Mohammad Zargham)
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