Mitt Romney, buoyed by recent polls that show him ahead of President Obama after a strong debate performance, appears to have modified his stance on abortion, a key issue among social conservatives, a voting bloc that has been skeptical of the Republican nominee in the past.
In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Romney seemed to back away from his antiabortion position, suggesting that he would not actively pursue legislation that would outlaw abortions, a key objective among social conservatives.
“There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda,” Romney told the paper’s editorial board. “One thing I would change however which would be done by executive order and not by legislation is that I would reinstate the Mexico City policy which is that foreign aid dollars from the United States would not be used to carry out abortion in other countries.”
Later, Romney, who spent the day in Ohio, appeared to back away from his remarks, saying: “I think I’ve said time and again that I’m a pro-life candidate and I’ll be a pro-life president.”
Romney’s comments come as the race for the White House tightens and as both candidates look to ensure base turnout in key swing states, such as Iowa, yet also look for ways to appeal to undecided, more centrist voters in states such as Ohio and Virginia.
During and after the debate last week, Romney has shifted and softened his earlier statements on several issues in moves apparently aimed at the center. In addition to Tuesday night’s comments on abortion, Romney has recently changed his tone and message on immigration, saying that he would not revoke the status of young illegal immigrants granted a two year deportation reprieve under an Obama order, yet still would end the program.
He also backed completely away from earlier comments captured in an undercover video that 47 percent of Americans were government freeloaders.
A Pew poll shows that Romney has gained significant ground among women voters since the debate, making up an 18-point deficit and now drawing even with Obama.
And as much as Romney needs to perform well among women, he also needs to perform well among social conservatives in states like Iowa, if he is to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the White House.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist Poll showed Obama with an eight point edge, 50 percent to 42 percent, among likely Iowa voters. But the Sept. 20 poll was taken before Romney’s dominant performance in the first debate.
In 2008, Obama won Iowa by eight points. Bush won the state in 2004, by about 13,000 votes. Social conservatives are hugely important to Romney’s chances in Iowa and with his recent statements on abortion he is highlighting a long-standing rift that has yet to be fully repaired according to some conservatives.
“I’m running out of fingers and toes to count the number of positions he has taken on abortion,” said Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa. “This is someone who does not have a deep or abiding position on this issue either way, and I think what it does is it puts pro-life leadership in America in a difficult position. I don’t know anybody in the pro-family movement who is not for sale who trusts him. People want to know who the person is that they are voting for at their core. I just don’t think he cares.”
Democrats, who have consistently run ads in states like Virginia that highlight Romney’s more conservative statements on abortion, seized on Romney’s seeming shift, yet said that he wasn’t flip-flopping, only hiding his real views on the issue.
“We are not saying he’s changed his mind. We are saying he’s trying to cover up his beliefs. He’s been running for president for six years, and every step of the way he’s been anti-choice, against Roe v. Wade, promised to appoint justices,” said Stephanie Cutter on an Obama campaign conference call with reporters. “Now he’s trying to soften his positions. He has not changed his mind, he’s just trying to hide them. That’s the difference here. He’s suddenly trying to hide because the positions are not working for him.”
Romney’s positions on abortion have run the gamut since a 1994 Senate race against then Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) .
“I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I have since the time my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate,” he said in a 1994 debate. “I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for twenty years that we should sustain and support it. And I sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice.”
That same year, in an interview with The Boston Herald, Romney said:
“[Roe v. Wade] has been the law of the land for over 20 years, and I do not want to change it, overturn it, reverse it,” he said. “I want it to remain the law of the land.”
Romney later changed his position, saying he would support the reversal of Roe v. Wade, “because it is bad law and bad medicine,” in a 2011 interview with the National Review.
Deace said Romney’s changing positions could hurt him among social conservatives, particularly in Iowa.
“You don’t see Obama looking for ways to spit in the eye of his own base,” Deace said. “You don’t have to offend that many people to affect the outcome. I hope Democrats push him on this. I hope Obama presses this issue because people deserve to know. This is a fundamental issue.”
But other conservatives continued to express support for Romney.
“Romney is on record on the issues socially conservative voters care about: Obamacare, religious liberty, unborn life, and marriage. The contrast between him and Obama on those issues could not be starker,” said Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “The election is largely about jobs, the economy, and health care, and we recommend that candidates focus on those issues. But when social issues come up — and they always do — Romney needs to be clear about where he stands and lean into it.”