Romney Flip-Flopped. And Got Caught.

Mitt Romney's basic strategy to win the presidency was to gallop to the right in the primaries, then gallop to the center in the general election. It worked well enough to give him the nomination. And when he pivoted to the center in the first debate, it worked again.

In Boca Raton,  Romney was betting that he could say anything in the debate in front of 65 million not terribly knowledgeable viewers and get away with it. He was trading on the fact that viewership for the fact-checking follow-up on cable will number in the tens of thousands, not the millions.

In 28 years of covering debates, I've never seen someone retreat from more positions, faster. In trying to show suburban women he wasn't a warmonger, he seemed reactive, shifty, and -- of critical importance -- not as strong as President Barack Obama.

In a normal political environment, Romney might get away with it. But in the vortex of a campaign in its last fortnight, all of the flip-flops and distortions will get chewed over not just on low-rated cable TV but also around kitchen tables in Toledo.

Within minutes, for instance, networks were playing tape of Romney talking about keeping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and about letting Detroit go bankrupt. As they did with John Kerry, the flip-flops are becoming a character issue for Romney. It's not a plus for him if undecided voters are asking: "Where does he really stand?" Obama's constant refrain that Romney was "all over the map" drove that message home.

Romney tried to fuzz up the auto bailout to make it seem as if he were actually supportive of government guarantees. It's awfully late to make that case when voters in Michigan and Ohio have long known that he wanted the private sector to step in to save the industry, but no one -- including Bain Capital -- was willing to do so.

If Romney manages to win Ohio by saying he wanted the government to save Detroit, he will be winning the presidency with a lie.

It could easily happen. This is shaping up as an extraordinarily close election. Anyone who says he knows what's going to happen is blowing smoke.

(Jonathan Alter is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

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