Mass. Governor's Rightward Shift Raises Questions

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), center, stands with state Senate President Robert E. Travaglini (D), left, and state House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi (D).
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), center, stands with state Senate President Robert E. Travaglini (D), left, and state House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi (D). (By Steven Senne -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 21, 2006

As he prepares for a 2008 presidential campaign, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has championed the conservative principles that guided President Ronald Reagan, become an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and supported overturning the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

It was not always so. Twelve years ago, Romney boasted that he would be more effective in fighting discrimination against gay men and lesbians than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), distanced himself from some conservative policies of the Reagan administration, and proudly recalled his family's record in support of abortion rights.

The apparent gulf between the candidate who ran for the Senate in 1994 and the one getting ready to run for president has raised questions as to who is the real Mitt Romney. Is he the self-described moderate who unsuccessfully challenged Kennedy in the year of the Republican landslide, the self-described conservative now ready to bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, or merely an ambitious and adaptable politician? The answer could be crucial to Romney's presidential ambitions.

In stressing his conservative views, Romney has sought to fill a vacuum on the right in the Republican nomination contest. Neither Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) nor former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who top the opinion polls among Republicans, has a comfortable relationship with social and cultural conservatives.

McCain has a long record of opposition to abortion rights, but many conservatives, nonetheless, remain wary of him because he went out of his way in 2000 to attack religious conservative leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Giuliani supports abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, creating potentially irreconcilable differences with many conservatives.

Romney acknowledges that his positions on abortion and gay rights have changed. He told National Review Online last week that he would like to see the Supreme Court overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and return the issue to the states. He also said he no longer favors a federal non-discrimination law that would cover gay men and lesbians, and no longer backs accelerating the opening up of the military to gay men and lesbians.

Romney declined a request for an interview to discuss the evolution of his thinking on these issues. Aides said his schedule did not permit him to take the time for a telephone interview. They also said he has responded to questions on these subjects many times as he has explored a presidential candidacy.

Eric Fehrnstrom, his statehouse communications director, responded to questions about the apparent shift in Romney's beliefs. "The governor should be judged on his four-year record in office in one of the most liberal states in the country," he said. "He has governed as a mainstream conservative. He's gone after wasteful spending; he's defended traditional marriage; he pushed to bring abstinence education to the classroom; he fought against embryonic cloning and stood up and vetoed an emergency-contraceptive bill."

But it will not just be that record that will attract attention as Romney leaves office in January and turns his attention toward a likely presidential campaign. The entire arc of his political career will be under examination, beginning with that 1994 race for the Senate.

When he challenged Kennedy, Romney was a young businessman with no firm ideological identity, the latest in a line of moderate Massachusetts Republicans that included former governor Francis W. Sargent and then-Gov. William F. Weld. Then 47, he had been a registered independent until 1993 and had voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 presidential primary. He took a tough, more conservative view of crime, immigration and welfare than Kennedy but shared the senator's liberal tolerance on social issues.

"It was a no-rocking-the-boat sort of reformism," said John Gorman, an independent Boston-based pollster.

As a Michigan-born Mormon, Romney was a cultural oddity in Massachusetts. Throughout the campaign, he sought to reassure voters that his religious faith would not influence his public actions. "One of the great things about our nation . . . is that we're each entitled to have strong, personal beliefs," Romney said during his first debate with Kennedy. "But, as a nation, we recognize the right of all people to believe as they want and not to impose our beliefs on other people."

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