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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: Romney the Extreme? Nah ...

The GOP's presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney

The GOP's presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney Credit: AP

History has given us great character names -- Henry the Navigator, Philip the Fair, Louis the Sun King -- but it is highly unlikely that Mitt the Extremist will ever be among them. The moniker just doesn't pack the same punch -- or legitimacy -- as, say, a Vlad the Impaler.

But that's not going to stop the Obama re-election team from trying to paint the presumptive Republican nominee as an extremist over the next six months. Slapping a thick layer of that rhetorical goo on Republicans has been standard procedure for left-leaning campaign operatives ever since former Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chairman Charles Schumer was caught on tape last year lecturing them to use the word. But still, it's hard to imagine the term extremist sticking to Mitt Romney. To Rick Santorum, sure. But to Romney? Hardly.

The great irony is that the Obama re-election team largely has itself to blame for Romney's advantageous positioning for the general election. For more than a year it has been advancing the story line that the former Massachusetts governor is a closet moderate disguising himself as a conservative. And if you say that enough times, people begin to believe it, especially when it is fundamentally true.

At the same time, Romney's primary rivals -- all of them -- gladly took up the chorus for their own political benefit. Newt Gingrich, who reportedly will bow out of the primary contest next week, routinely took to calling Romney the "Massachusetts Moderate," and he didn't mean it as a compliment. The question seemed to be, "What is that centrist doing in our race?"

Then Romney did the damnedest thing. He showed grit and won the nomination anyway.

That ruined everything for everybody. Conservatives can't claim that GOP voters really want a far-right standard-bearer; liberals can't credibly claim that the Republican Party has veered to la droite of France's Marine Le Pen.

But most important, President Barack Obama cannot suggest, straight-faced, that he is running against an extremist after spending enormous campaign resources and the better part of the year reminding voters that his health care plan was modeled on Romney's in Massachusetts.

It is curious, though, that the president and his supporters are employing Sen. Schumer's "extreme" script. Last week, the Democratic National Committee was out with an ad titled: "Mitt Romney and Tom Corbett: Too Extreme for Women." Follow-up emails blared: "Mitt Romney's positions mirror those of the extreme elements of his party." This suggests, at least for the moment, that Obama lacks another tack to take against Romney. Obama for America, the president's campaign team, is very sure when it is sure-footed. Just ask Hillary Clinton. But it appears decidedly off-kilter right now. It seems uncertain how to crack the Romney nut. Do they attack him as a political opportunist with no firm ideological conviction -- that narrative may be stale -- or as an extremist who wants to eviscerate the federal government and declare "War on Fill-in-the-Blank?" For now, they are choosing the latter, however incredible it may ring.

Say what you will about Mitt Romney, he navigated the primary process extraordinarily well, taking a well-deserved victory lap here in New York and in nearby states on Tuesday. He made a few slip-ups now and again -- but remarkably few when you consider how many speeches and interviews he gave over the past year and how little sleep he had before giving them. Sure, he veered to the right to make it through states like Iowa, but in doing so he improbably got the imprimatur "moderate" tattooed to his forehead. And nothing short of a Barry Goldwater defense-of-liberty speech is likely to rub it off. Call it dumb luck; I call it expert work by a talented Obama campaign team that gambled on labeling Romney a moderate early in the Republican primary, in the faint hope that a Herman Cain or a Gingrich might eclipse him.

President Obama instead is left facing Romney the Relieved, who has a lot of people to thank for reinforcing his moderate brand, even as he shimmied to the right.

Bill O'Reilly is a corporate and political communications consultant who works on the Republican side of the aisle.