Mass. Governor's Rightward Shift Raises Questions

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."

One group he went out of his way to court was the gay rights community. While he noted that he opposed same-sex marriage, Romney said that "certain benefits and privileges should be offered to gay couples and lesbian couples." Acknowledging that Kennedy had a strong record on sexual-orientation issues, Romney said his GOP identity gave his words extra weight.

"There's something to be said for having a Republican who supports civil rights in this broader context, including sexual orientation," he told Bay Windows, a Boston-area newspaper for the gay community, in an Aug. 18, 1994, interview. "When Ted Kennedy speaks on gay rights, he's seen as an extremist. When Mitt Romney speaks on gay rights, he's seen as a centrist and a moderate."

He said he would push gay rights issues if elected. "I think the gay community needs more support from the Republican Party, and I would be a voice in the Republican Party to foster anti-discrimination efforts," he said then.

In an Oct. 6, 1994, letter to the Log Cabin Club of Massachusetts, a GOP gay and lesbian group, Romney endorsed broad federal anti-discrimination protections and the creation of a federal panel to address gay and lesbian youth suicide. He called President Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" military policy "the first of a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation's military."

Romney has since backed away from his endorsement of that federal anti-discrimination statute and from his previously expansive position on gay people in the military. On that issue, he told National Review Online, he now defers to military leaders.

Fehrnstrom said Romney remains opposed to discrimination against gay men and lesbians, though his focus in the past few years has shifted to the issue of same-sex marriage. "Even as the governor has emerged nationally as a prime defender of traditional marriage, he always cloaks his rhetoric in tolerance and respect for people of all walks of life," he said.

Romney has long said he personally opposes abortion, and in an Oct. 25, 1994, debate with Kennedy, he was asked to reconcile his personal beliefs with his support for abortion rights.

"I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country," Romney responded. "I have, since the time when my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate. I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, we should sustain and support it. I sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice. And my personal beliefs, like the personal beliefs of other people, should not be brought into a political campaign."

He ran for governor in 2002 promising to preserve the status quo on abortion in Massachusetts, saying he would oppose changes that either liberalized or restricted access to abortion. He has lived up to that promise. But in late 2004, as he studied the issue of embryonic stem cell research, he underwent what he has called an awakening that led him to the conclusion that "the sanctity of life had been cheapened" by the Roe decision.

That led him to describe himself as "pro-life." Still, he remained cagey about what that meant in terms of public policy, saying only that he would abide by his 2002 campaign promise. Asked in an interview with Washington Post reporters in February 2005 whether he favored making abortion illegal, he replied: "I'm telling you exactly what I will do as governor of Massachusetts, but I'm not going to tell you what I'd do as mayor of Boston or a congressman or any of those positions."

In the 1994 campaign, Romney also proudly labeled himself a moderate. "I'm not a partisan politician," he said in an interview with The Post that fall. "My hope is that, after this election, it will be the moderates of both parties who will control the Senate, not the Jesse Helmses."

Helms, the former Republican senator from North Carolina, was one of the most conservative elected officials in the country.

In his 1994 debate with Kennedy, Romney also refused to endorse the "Contract With America," which House Republicans had proudly presented as their campaign manifesto, and he balked when Kennedy tried to link him to the Reagan administration. "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush," Romney retorted.

Questions about Romney's conservative credentials could provide an opening for several other Republicans exploring 2008 candidacies, among them Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) and outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Several conservative leaders, Falwell among them, declined to be interviewed for this article. One said it is premature to comment publicly. But Paul M. Weyrich, who is head of the Free Congress Foundation, said Romney should not underestimate the problem he may face as he prepares to launch his campaign.

"I think it's very serious," he said. "Our position is that, if a candidate can change his position sort of overnight, what would he do once he got in office? Would he do the same thing?"

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