MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — As Mitt Romney campaigns through South Carolina, which will hold the South's first presidential primary on Jan. 19, he evokes Ronald Reagan in almost every airplane hangar rally, every restaurant back room, everywhere he can.
It seems like a surefire way to appeal to the diehard conservatives that the former governor of liberal Massachusetts needs to win the Republican presidential nomination.
In Myrtle Beach, at the end of a long campaign day one night last week, he was more emphatic than ever about the Great Communicator as a crowd of about 200 listened.
"I take inspiration from the strength Ronald Reagan talked about," Romney said. "It was his view that the right way to overcome challenges was for the country to strengthen itself."
Yet Romney wasn't always such a Reagan fan.
In 1994, when he ran for the U. S. Senate in Massachusetts, he said, "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."
Romney spent years in the state registered as "unenrolled," or unaffiliated with a political party, and in 1992 he voted for former Sen. Paul Tsongas, a liberal Democrat, in the Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary.
Romney was considered a moderate in those days, losing the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race in 1994 and winning the governorship in 2002. He voiced support for abortion rights, allowing gays to serve openly in the military and other positions that led activists to think he was a centrist.
Romney refused repeated requests to talk about his links to Reagan. Campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said that Romney's 1994 "independent" quote is out of context, that the vote for Tsongas was a vote against Bill Clinton and that not enrolling in either major party was common in Massachusetts.
Critics, however, charge that Romney's enthusiastic embrace of Reagan is another convenient, expedient Romney lunge to the right.
"He didn't support Ronald Reagan," said Mark Salter, a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of Romney's rivals. Romney's promise to carry on Reagan's legacy is more evidence of "Mitt Romney's bizarro world," Salter added.
"This guy didn't even support Ronald Reagan," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said disdainfully on an MSNBC show last month.
Fehrnstrom urged looking at the entire 1994 exchange between Romney and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., whom Romney was challenging at the time.
Kennedy had criticized Republicans, saying that "under your economic program, under the program of Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush, we saw the growth in terms of the unemployment, the growth in the number of children living in poverty, the growth in terms of those children out of wedlock."
Romney replied: "Look, I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush. My positions don't talk about the things you suggest they talk about. This isn't a political issue."
Fehrnstrom also said that Romney voted for Tsongas to make a statement against Clinton. "He got to vote against Bill Clinton twice," the spokesman said, since Romney voted for George H.W. Bush in the general election.
And the spokesman said that Romney registered as "unenrolled for a period, which is not uncommon in Massachusetts with its large number of independent voters." He didn't specify exactly when Romney was unenrolled.
Some 49.7 percent of the state's voters are listed as unenrolled, meaning they can vote in either party's primary. Democrats, who dominate statewide offices, account for 36.9 percent of voters; Republicans, 12.5 percent.
Romney, the son of a Republican governor of Michigan in the 1960s, recalled voting for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and "culturally," Fehrnstrom said, "Mitt Romney has always been a Republican." Town records in Belmont, Mass., the Boston suburb where Romney lives, go back only to 1995; Romney has been registered as a Republican since then.
Voters in key early states appear divided about the impact of Romney's uncertain past with Reagan.
"It would be a little bit better if he were consistent," said Don Burton, a retiree from Spartanburg, S.C., who's trying to choose between McCain, Romney and Giuliani. "McCain does seem more honest and forthright."
Sean Flaherty, a University of South Carolina student, saw echoes of what he's heard Reagan must have been like.
"Romney seems to be the spitting image, the way he lights up a room," Flaherty said. Romney's position changes don't bother him. "Every politician does that," Flaherty said.
"He's very Reagan-like," said Paul Grimm, a longtime political activist. "He's saying the Reagan revolution was a resounding turnabout, and I want to go back to that kind of strength."
However, there also were people such as Tom Middleton, a real estate broker who went to one of Reagan's inaugural balls in the 1980s.
"I got cold chills. There was God," he recalled. "He made people believe in America again. He was a man of his word."
Did Romney remind him of Reagan?
"Not really," said Middleton, who's still trying to decide between Romney and Giuliani. "But he does have the aura. He does have the look."
ON THE WEB
Watch excerpts from the 1994 Romney-Kennedy debate.