And just like that, the bull loose in the crowd spies Mitt and starts pawing the ground…

Back in 2008, Mitt would’ve been first to fan the flames. At the time, he was scrambling to escape his moderate Massachusetts past (pro-choice, pro-gay) by loudly proclaiming himself a “true conservative” on every issue of importance to the GOP base: immigration, abortion, gay marriage, et cetera. He even suggested that mosques should be wiretapped.

But now, while Palin and Co. are using the Ground Zero mosque controversy to burnish their far-right bona fides, Romney is seizing on the kerfuffle as an opportunity to do something else entirely: prove that he’s the only potential Republican nominee with the fortitude to ignore the 24/7 news cycle’s endless array of bright, shiny objects and focus instead on improving what he calls “the foundations of our economic vitality.”

Romney realizes that 2010 isn’t 2008, and he’s betting that 2012 won’t be, either. With the U.S. economy in shambles—and the rest of the Republican pack either too unpolished (Palin), too damaged (Gingrich), or too obscure (Pawlenty) to unseat Obama—the once-and-future candidate sees an opening for himself as the only grown-up, business-savvy, economic-turnaround-expert in the race. Back in April, Romney told me what he regretted most about his last presidential run. “I wish I had been more effective in being able to communicate the central rationale of my campaign, which is strengthening the economy, getting better jobs, raising incomes,” he said. “Instead, as a candidate I spent a good deal of time answering questions about social issues.” Note how Romney mixed the past and present tenses. The implication was that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Follow the link up top for a runthrough of Mitt’s proposals to get the economy back on track sprinkled with a bit of the author’s mandatory Newsweek snottiness towards ye olde wingnuts and their silly mosque silliness. Actually, Mitt has weighed in on the mosque via a spokesman — he’s against its construction — but only after Ben Smith directly asked the campaign for a statement did they venture to provide one. I think Newsweek’s right that that’s a strategic decision on Romney’s part aimed at positioning himself as the economy-focused “adult” among the GOP field. Chris Christie did the same thing, and I sure hope Republican congressional candidates are planning to follow suit. What Newsweek forgets to mention is that issues related to religious freedom obviously pose a special problem for Mitt ahead of 2012. He’s already had enough headaches from some in the Christian base to necessitate a speech on the subject during the heart of the last Republican primary season. If he gets sucked into the mosque debate, he’s in a no-win situation: If he takes a soft line, he risks further alienating the people who view him suspiciously because of his own Mormon faith. If he takes a hard line, he loses his economy-focused image and risks a ferocious backlash from media lefties who’ll demand that a guy in his position show more empathy to a minority religion. He’s screwed either way, so he’s lying low. Note to Obama: Take a lesson.