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Heilemann on Romney: 'There's only so far you can pivot away from the positions you've taken'

Mitt Romney swept another round of Republican nominating contests Tuesday night, and gave a speech in which he unveiled a new rhetorical theme in his campaign against President Obama: unfairness.

"We will stop the unfairness of urban children being denied access to the good schools of their choice,” Romney told supporters. “We will stop the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayers' money to their friends' businesses. We will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the very taxpayers they serve. And we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next.”

The goal, of course, is to avoid ceding the unfairness argument to President Obama, who has made concerns about widening economic inequality the centerpiece of his campaign. But on Morning Joe Wednesday, opinion was divided about the effectiveness of Romney’s performance.

TIME’s Mark Halperin was impressed by what he called "the semiotics". “There was tons in there that Republicans could be encouraged by,” he said. “There was a lot of optimism in the speech as well, he brought up a couple of grandkids at the end … A lot of Republicans are going to like that performance.”

“He’s an underdog and he will be all the way through, probably,” Halperin added. “But he could win if he can maintain that level of performance.”

But New York magazine’s John Heilemann stood up for the idea that Romney’s actual positions – and whether they line up with his new rhetorical tack about unfairness -- might end up being more important than semiotics.

“The president and his people will go back and point to some of the policies that Romney has had to embrace over the course of this primary,” Heilemann pointed out. “Those policies are pretty far out of step with where the middle of the electorate is. And they’re going to keep reminding people of where he is substantively, not where he is rhetorically.”

“There’s only so far you can pivot away from the positions you’ve taken,” Heilemann added. “It’s going to be hard for him to run away from those actual positions of substance.”

Still, Halperin cheerfully pointed out that Romney’s confident performance might nonetheless resonate with perhaps the most important constituency he needs to appeal to: “Really really rich Republicans who want to beat the president” and can now give unlimited amounts to outside groups backing Romney.

“That performance will open some checkbooks,” Halperin predicted. “As long as he’s looking strong enough to bet on, he’s going to get multi-million-dollar contributions to people supporting his candidacy.”

And the identities of many of those multi-million-dollar contributors won't even have to be made public. Welcome to post-Citizens-United politics.