A buoyant Mitt Romney said the debate had presented Americans with a distinct choice: between "larger and larger, more and more intrusive" government and "freedom, hope and opportunity."

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WASHINGTON — Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is shifting to the political center as he begins to deliver a closing argument aimed at a slice of moderate, undecided voters a month before Election Day.

On taxes, immigration, his “47 percent” comments and more, the former Massachusetts governor has toned down his heated, campaign-trail rhetoric this week, including during his strong debate performance Wednesday night, as he looks to gain ground against President Obama in the few states that will determine the outcome of the election.

“I know this is going to be a close-fought battle,” a buoyant Romney said in Colorado.

Joined by running mate Paul Ryan and country star Trace Adkins at an evening rally in Fishersville, Va., Romney was confident and upbeat, basking in sustained cheers from a crowd of thousands.

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“Last night was an important night for the country,” Romney said before getting cut off by loud chants of “Romney, Romney.”

Romney even backed off his disparaging remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income tax.

In an interview with Fox News before the Virginia rally, he said that had he been asked during the debate about the remarks secretly recorded at a May fundraiser, he would have acknowledged he was wrong.

Firestorm set off

The original remarks, posted online in September, sparked intense criticism of Romney and provided fodder to those who portray him as an out-of-touch millionaire oblivious to the lives of average Americans.

The remarks became a staple of Obama campaign criticism.

Initially, Romney defended his view, saying his remarks were “not elegantly stated” and that they were spoken “off the cuff.”

Thursday night, he told Fox News: “Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right.

“In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.”

In the coming days, the Republican nominee will try to capitalize on his well-received debate appearance by moderating his pitch and working to narrow Obama’s advantage in swing-state polling that aides say showed signs of tightening even before Romney and the president sparred.

The Republican’s aides played down the notion that the debate was a game-changing event. But they appeared more optimistic about Romney’s chances than they had been during a troubled stretch that lasted several weeks.

“We’ve got over a month here,” Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said. “That’s an eternity.”

Romney will use that time to drive the centrist message he outlined in the debate. He emphasized support for popular elements of Obama’s health-care law, embraced government regulation as necessary and hinted that he may eliminate government subsidies for oil companies as part of a larger tax plan he insisted would not cut taxes for the wealthy.

In some cases, the message is a departure — in tone, if not substance — from a candidate who has for more than a year assailed the president’s “government takeover” of health care and “job-crushing regulations,” and who has promised tax cuts for all.

While moderating his message, Romney will also deliver a series of policy speeches, beginning with a foreign-policy address in Virginia on Monday, to help crystallize differences with the Democratic incumbent.

Future speeches are expected to focus on job creation and federal debt, areas where Romney’s internal polling suggests there is an opportunity to win over so-called “persuadable voters.”

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that the vast majority of voters already have settled on a candidate, but 17 percent of likely voters are considered persuadable — either because they’re undecided or showing soft support for Obama or Romney. The group is generally less informed than the average voter and more moderate politically.

Obama’s key strategist

Obama’s campaign wasted little time trying to dampen the Republican mood, with David Axelrod, the president’s campaign strategist, saying: “It was a very vigorous performance, but one that was devoid of honesty. … I don’t think he helped himself last night with his serial evasions and deceptions.”

To a certain extent, there’s a fissure between Romney’s message on the campaign trail and in television advertising.

He declared in the debate, for example, that government regulation “is essential.” Asked whether he thought it was excessive under Obama’s leadership, Romney told a Denver audience a day later: “In some places, yes. Other places, no.”

But Romney is running an ad on Colorado television on the same topic that says: “Excessive government regulations are crushing job creation.”

On health care, Romney said in the debate that “pre-existing conditions are covered in my plan,” a reference to the popular provision in the president’s health-care law that prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to certain people.

But in recent months, the Romney campaign has repeatedly clarified that only those who maintain continuous health-care coverage would be protected.

And while immigration was not addressed in the debate, Romney told The Denver Post this week that he would honor temporary work permits for young illegal immigrants granted by the Obama administration.

Throughout the Republican primary, however, Romney took an aggressive tack on immigration, saying in debates that he approved of “self-deportation,” where illegal immigrants would choose to leave on their own because they couldn’t find work in the U.S.

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