WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney’s aggressive efforts to position himself as a tough abortion opponent are paying off: He’s been hailed by family-values activists and seems well on his way to becoming the choice of many in the Christian conservative community.
But the former Massachusetts governor is finding that he can’t escape his past, in which he repeatedly pledged that he'd never change the state's laws permitting abortion and eagerly courted abortion-rights groups for their support.
As a result, Romney is under constant pressure to explain himself on abortion, particularly as his foes remind voters that he once was pro-choice.
“It is conventional wisdom here in Massachusetts that statewide candidates need to be pro-choice to win,” said Kelly O’Bryan, the political director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, an abortion-rights group. “Mitt Romney ran as a pro-choice gubernatorial candidate in 2002.”
Deborah Allen, then chairman of the group’s board, had the same recollection.
“He worked very hard to say, ‘I’m leaving you with a position that should make you comfortable and confident. I’m not going to work to further restrict abortions or reproductive health measures generally,'” she said.
The former Massachusetts governor has said over and over that he didn't change his position on abortion for political expedience, although he did so after he won the 2002 gubernatorial race and as he was preparing to run for president.
He has said that he always personally opposed abortion, but supported Massachusetts' voters' right to set their own legal standard. His now-firmer opposition to abortion rights crystallized during his governorship, as debates over stem-cell research and human cloning caused him to think more deeply about his views on human life, he's said.
Many Christian conservatives appear willing to accept Romney’s political conversion. Last week, Bob Jones III, the chancellor of the fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University and influential in South Carolina politics, endorsed Romney. And Romney won the straw poll among social conservative "Values Voters" who met for three days last week in Washington.
“I don’t think we’re electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor,” said Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Christian Alliance. “We’re looking for someone who’s right on the issues.”
Others remain wary.
“The attitude now is that when he changed, he did so sincerely. But it could be we’ve been had,” said Paul Weyrich, the chairman of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, an influential conservative group.
The political significance of the abortion issue varies by state.
In Iowa, the site of the nation’s first GOP caucus on Jan. 3, the latest Des Moines Register/Iowa Poll, conducted Oct. 1-3, gave Romney reason for concern. It asked the state’s GOP voters how they regarded Romney’s shift on abortion. A majority — 51 percent — called it a “major factor” that could influence whether they support him. Only 23 percent said it wasn't a factor.
Romney, though, maintains that every candidate has a similar issue or controversy that makes voters edgy. The same poll showed that 58 percent were concerned about Arizona Sen. John McCain’s plan to offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, and 55 percent saw former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s support for abortion rights as a “major factor” when they choose a candidate.
In New Hampshire and South Carolina, however, where two crucial early primaries will winnow the GOP field and likely crown a front-runner, pollsters think the controversy over Romney and abortion is overblown.
Economic issues — particularly immigration — are far more important to Republicans, said Matt A. Towery, the chief executive officer of InsiderAdvantage, an Atlanta-based firm that polls in South Carolina.
Even among the religious right, he found, “immigration is regarded as the bigger cause celebre this year.”
In New Hampshire, abortion is barely registering as a major concern, even among likely GOP voters. The latest University of New Hampshire/Granite State Poll, taken in late September, found that only 16 percent of those voters said that abortion shouldn't be legal under any circumstances; most of the rest said abortion should be wholly legal or legal in limited instances.
Poll director Andrew E. Smith echoed Towery, saying that in New Hampshire, “immigration is absolutely more important here” as a paramount issue for Republican voters.
The more crucial test that the abortion issue poses for Romney is likely to arise from what his positions say about his character and integrity. His rivals have begun piling on; McCain, at Sunday’s debate, said Romney “just spent the last year trying to fool people about your record.”
Helping stoke this fire are abortion-rights groups, which remain outspoken and outraged about Romney’s change of position.
The Massachusetts group produced notes from its September 2002 meeting with Romney — who was seeking its endorsement — that quote him saying that he'd “protect and preserve a woman’s right to choose under Massachusetts law” and that overturning Roe v. Wade would be a “serious mistake for our country and the Supreme Court.”
Romney didn't get the group’s endorsement. He alienated NARAL in 2005 when he vetoed legislation to expand access to emergency contraception.
“He wasn’t going to change Massachusetts law because it was a pro-choice state,” said campaign spokesman Kevin Madden. “He kept his promise. But he didn’t think there needed to be new laws that weakened any of the standards that were already set.”
Romney explained in an essay in the Boston Globe that emergency contraception sometimes causes abortions.
Since then, anti-abortion activists in Massachusetts have embraced Romney. Mildred F. Jefferson, the president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said that initially Romney had taken a “politically expedient pro-abortion position,” but “to move from there to admitting he was wrong took rare courage.”
The group gave Romney its award for “outstanding political leadership” earlier this year, noting that “we have followed Governor Romney’s evolution carefully.”
The abortion-rights crowd is disenchanted and likely to keep reminding voters of how Romney changed his views.
“He was so forceful reaching out to us,” said Allen, an associate professor of maternal and child health at Boston University. “I understand people can change their minds, but nothing external had happened to cause his change.”