A Massachusetts Conservative
Mitt Romney is walking a political tightrope in his run for the White House
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C.-In his stump speech to supporters gathered among the shrimp boats on the bank of Shem Creek, Mitt Romney makes no mention of hot-button issues like abortion or the role of religion in politics. But when the speech is finished, the Republican presidential hopeful is swarmed by reporters asking only hot-button questions: Will conservative voters believe that the formerly pro-choice ex-governor of Massachusetts is now antiabortion? How did he make the conversion? Will evangelical Christians back a devout Mormon like Romney?
Romney, in a tailored suit and flawlessly coiffed hair, insists that voters are more concerned with other issues, like "How are we going to beat the jihadists? How are we going to be competitive with Asia? How to improve our schools and healthcare."
And yet answering those hotter-button questions may hold the key to whether Romney has a shot at winning the Republican nomination. Romney has so far sold himself as the more conservative alternative to front-runners John McCain, who riled many conservatives by supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and opposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and likely contender Rudolph Giuliani, a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights. In doing so, however, Romney is battling his own past. He admits to being "effectively pro-choice" as recently as two years ago. "Voters can respect a politician who changes parties," says Republican strategist Scott Reed. "But it's more difficult for a politician that changes philosophies."
Competition. While convincing social conservatives that he has become one of them, Romney must also develop broad enough appeal to be seen as truly competitive with McCain and Giuliani. A CNN poll last week had Romney winning support from just 7 percent of Republican-leaning voters, compared with 32 percent for Giuliani and 26 percent for McCain. Still, with Hollywood-style charisma, a résumé that includes a big win in the bluest of states, and a team of marquee activists and aides, Romney is probably the strongest White House hopeful that most Americans have never heard of. "You want to ask some presidential candidates who aren't well known, 'Why did you decide to do this?'" says Whit Ayres, a GOP strategist. "With Romney, you can see a path to go all the way."
Even before leaving office, Romney raised his profile among conservatives by fighting the Massachusetts Supreme Court's 2003 decision to legalize gay marriage. He helped prod the state legislature into voting to put the issue before voters in a referendum. Romney also began trumpeting his new antiabortion stance, tracing his conversion to a 2004 meeting with Harvard scientists. Romney says one scientist told him cloning human embryos was not a moral issue because they were destroyed within two weeks. "It struck me that we had so cheapened the value of human life," Romney tells U.S. News, "that someone would feel that racks of human embryos being created ... was not a moral issue." Now, Romney is drawing parallels between his own antiabortion conversion and that of Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California signed a liberal abortion rights law. Mark DeMoss, an evangelical publicity executive who organized a meeting between Romney and evangelical leaders, says he was won over by Romney's story about the Harvard scientists: "To hear him tell it, it's almost like Paul's road-to-Damascus experience in the New Testament."