In the final sprint before Iowa's first-in-the-country U.S. presidential nominating contest, Republican Mitt Romney has seized a campaign theme from the Democrats: the promise to bring change to Washington.
In a bus tour on the final weekend before Iowa's January 3 caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor sounded at times like one of the Democratic candidates, who have vied to portray themselves as the best choice for voters dissatisfied with the last seven years under Republican President George W. Bush.
"If ever there's been a time we needed change in Washington, it's now," Romney, who would be the first Mormon president if he wins the White House, said on Saturday.
Running against Washington is a time-honored tactic, especially among Republicans who are often suspicious of powerful central government.
But in the 2008 presidential race, Republican candidates must be more nuanced when they denounce Washington in the wake of the Bush administration.
Republicans controlled Congress for much of that time, and they successfully blocked many Democratic initiatives this year after they lost control in the 2006 mid-term elections.
But with approval ratings for Bush near historic lows, Romney and other Republican candidates have been distancing themselves from the administration.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee frequently invokes his humble roots in a dig at the party's affluent, pro-big business wing while former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is more likely to invoke Ronald Reagan than even Bush does.
Arizona Sen. John McCain criticizes wasteful government spending and the Iraq war policy of Bush's former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
"I was the only one who's running who said the Rumsfeld strategy will fail," McCain said at a town hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Friday night. "I was accused of being disloyal by Republicans."
Democrats have been less cautious. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama promises to move beyond partisanship and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards frequently criticizes other members of his party for not fighting Bush hard enough. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, promises to undo many Bush administration policies.
Romney is careful not to criticize Bush, whose approval ratings are considerably higher among Republicans than they are among the population at large.
"Though some people find it interesting to attack our president for all sorts of reasons, let's not forget he kept us safe these past six years," he said in Ottumwa, a reference to the years since the September 11 attacks.
But as Romney makes the case that his experience as a management consultant and head of the 2002 Winter Olympics makes him the best candidate to overhaul the way business is done in Washington, he does not spare his own party.
"It takes two to tango. I'm not going to say it's only one party -- it's both parties," he said at a news conference in Columbus Junction on Sunday.
Aides say the theme is meant to highlight Romney's tenure as governor, when he worked with a Democratic state legislature to expand health insurance coverage. That's likely to come in handy if the Democrats retain control of Congress after the November 2008 election, said conservative legal activist Jay Sekulow.
"As a Republican you hope that's not the case but you have to deal with the reality that it may well be," Sekulow said after a campaign appearance in Pella.
The Washington-outsider theme gives Romney another way to criticize rivals like McCain, who was first elected to Congress in 1982, as too mired in the ways of Washington to change the way it works.
But he also has used the theme to attack Democrats.
"I think the Democrats represent the old failed policies of the 1960s, the old failed policies of old Europe, big government, Big Brother, big taxes," he said in Iowa City.