AMES, Iowa — It was mid-afternoon by the time Mitt Romney stepped up to an outdoor podium here Friday, but the temperature still hovered stubbornly below 40 degrees, keeping the crowd to a modest size. The lofty soundtrack that accompanied his arrival felt a bit over-the-top for the smallness of the setting.
But Romney, in a white shirt, dark tie, and sporty black windbreaker, was all smiles.
After a blistering primary campaign, a summer of distractions, and an early autumn of flailing, the Republican nominee has finally gotten the chance to run the race he always wanted to run. Now, speaking to the audience of a couple thousand bundled-up voters — with the finish line in sight — he appeared to be relishing it.
"This is an election of consequence," he declared. "Our campaign is about big things, because we happen to believe that America faces big challenges. We recognize this is a year with a big choice, and the American people want to see big changes. And together we can bring real change to this country."
His campaign hasn't always been quite so "big."
Romney spent much of the Republican primary carpet-bombing one state after another with attack ads — a scorched-earth strategy that, aides later admitted, made it hard for him to promote a positive campaign theme.
When he finally did emerge as the nominee, he quickly went to work filling his campaign coffers and rebuilding bridges to the Republican base. That meant a summer of stump speeches studded with intense character attacks on President Obama, and a constantly changing message that seemed at times to be chasing tweets and other shiny objects, rather than driving grand ideas.
But with 11 days left in the election, Romney's speech here marked a return to the elevated message that got him into the race.
For all his campaign's bravado, Romney's aides privately concede that the election is quite close, with one admitting, "It's a coin toss at this point." (That's a point the Obama campaign will still feverishly challenge.) And rather than spend the final days of the campaign engaging in the sort of hand-to-hand combat that delights conservative talk radio — on Benghazi, for instance, or abortion — Romney's Boston-based campaign is returning to basics for their closing argument.
In his speech Friday, Romney presented himself again as a hyper-competent turnaround artist; a wingtip-wearing management consultant with a dash of gravitas.
"Our campaign is about that kind of change," Romney said. "Confronting the problems that politicians have avoided for over a decade, revitalizing our competitive economy, modernizing our education, restoring our founding principles."
Rather than run away from his moderate Massachusetts gubernatorial record, Romney pointed to it as an example of how he would navigate the shoals of Washington bureaucracy to achieve "real change."
"We will meet with Democrat and Republican leadership regularly, we will look for common ground and shared principles, and we will put the interests of the American people above the interests of the politicians," he said. "I know something about leading because I’ve led before. In business, at the Olympics, and in Massachusetts, I’ve brought people together to achieve real change."
If the familiar rhetoric in his Ames speech fell somewhat short of the "major address" the press billed it to be, it wasn't just because much of it was lifted from a stump speech he's been delivering across Ohio in recent days.
Indeed, the remarks offered a distillation of the major themes he ran on when he launched his campaign last year at a farm in Manchester, speaking under a banner that read, "Believe in America." Eighteen months later, he returned to that idea as he argued that his opponent had failed.
"President Obama frequently reminds us that he inherited a troubled economy. But a troubled economy is not all that President Obama inherited," Romney intoned. "He inherited the greatest nation in the history of the earth. He inherited the most productive and innovative nation in history. He inherited the largest economy in the world. And he inherited a people who have always risen to the occasion, regardless of the challenges they faced, so long as we have been led by men and women who have brought us together, called on our patriotism, and guided the nation with vision and conviction."
Senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom framed the speech as "seizing" the message of change, and branding Obama as the tired status quo.
"There is a fundamental question facing the American electorate. Do they want change, or do they want another four years like the last four years? That's what the speech is about," he said.
It was a canned quote that Fehnrstrom had repeated to reporters dozens of times before. But for the first time in a long time, Romney's campaign actually seems to believe it.