Mitt Romney was firm and direct with the abortion rights advocates sitting in his office nine years ago, assuring the group that if elected Massachusetts governor, he would protect the state’s abortion laws.

Then, as the meeting drew to a close, the businessman offered an intriguing suggestion — that he would rise to national prominence in the Republican Party as a victor in a liberal state and could use his influence to soften the GOP’s hard-line opposition to abortion.

He would be a “good voice in the party” for their cause, and his moderation on the issue would be “widely written about,” he said, according to detailed notes taken by an officer of the group, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.

“You need someone like me in Washington,” several participants recalled Romney saying that day in September 2002, an apparent reference to his future ambitions.

Romney made similar assurances to activists for gay rights and the environment, according to people familiar with the discussions, both as a candidate for governor and then in the early days of his term.

The encounters with liberal advocates offer some revealing insights into the ever-evolving ideology of Romney, who as a presidential candidate now espouses the hard-line opposition to abortion that he seemed to disparage less than a decade ago.

Some details of his interactions with liberal activists were first reported in the Los Angeles Times in 2007, when Romney was introducing himself on the national stage.

This time, Romney, focusing more on his economic expertise than his gubernatorial record, is widely viewed as the GOP’s front-runner. His past positions remain fodder for critics as polls show that he has yet to win over many conservative primary voters — and as rivals in both parties try to brand him a flip-flopper.

Now, as they watch Romney’s ascent from his old stomping grounds in Boston, many of the liberals he encountered wonder whether his transformation has been sincere or a matter of sheer politics. Not only did he espouse more liberal views at the time, but Romney presented himself as a change agent who could soften the GOP’s rough ideological edges.

Melissa Kogut, the NARAL group’s executive director in 2002, recalled Wednesday that as she and other participants in the meeting began to pack their belongings to leave after the 45-minute session, Romney became “emphatic that the Republican Party was not doing themselves a service by being so vehemently anti-choice.”

The abortion rights supporters came away from the meeting pleasantly surprised. Romney declined to label himself “pro-choice” but said he eschewed all labels, including “pro-life.” He told the group that he would “protect and preserve a woman’s right to choose under Massachusetts law” and that he thought any move to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision would be a “serious mistake for our country.”

“We felt good about the interview. He seemed genuine,” said Nicole Roos, the NARAL official who took the notes and shared them with a reporter.

Romney aides declined to comment Wednesday. Aide Eric Fehrnstrom referred The Washington Post to quotes he provided the Los Angeles Times four years ago in which he said that Romney had been true to his words and that activists’ recollections were colored by their political agendas.

“People’s memories change with time, and change depending on which way the political winds are blowing,” Fehrnstrom said then.

In this year’s campaign, conservatives have tried to make some of Romney’s past ties to liberals a liability. They note that Gina McCarthy, a top Obama official responsible for greenhouse-gas-reduction policy, worked as a senior aide in the Romney administration. McCarthy, in her role at Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, has angered many Republicans and business groups.

The ‘token Republican’

Romney’s approach to reassuring the left was first evident in 1994, when he tried to unseat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) by offering himself as an unconventional Republican in the mold of the popular and socially liberal Gov. William Weld.

In a widely publicized letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group, he touted himself as a stronger advocate on gay rights issues than the liberal lion himself.

In an Aug. 25, 1994, interview with Bay Windows, a gay newspaper in Boston, he offered this pitch, according to excerpts published on the paper’s Web site: “There’s something to be said for having a Republican who supports civil rights in this broader context, including sexual orientation. 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.

“It’s a little like if Eugene McCarthy was arguing in favor of recognizing China, people would have called him a nut. But when Richard Nixon does it, it becomes reasonable. When Ted says it, it’s extreme; when I say it, it’s mainstream.”

In his campaign for governor eight years later, he publicly opposed gay marriage. But he again courted Log Cabin Republicans, meeting with them at a gay bar in Boston and sitting for another interview with Bay Windows, leaving some in the community with a vaguer impression of his stance.

In that interview, he called himself the “token Republican” who could use the power of his office to push lawmakers toward supporting certain domestic-partner benefits. He singled out the speaker of the state House at the time, who opposed legislation on that issue.

“I will support and endorse efforts to provide those domestic partnership benefits to gay and lesbian couples,” Romney said.

One participant in the Log Cabin session said Romney simply seemed opposed to the word “marriage” being used for same-sex couples.

“I certainly inferred from that that he didn’t have a problem with me as long as I called it something other than the M-word,” said Boston businessman Richard Babson.

Another participant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Romney “left the impression of being friendly to the concept of some sort of same-sex union and not being vehemently opposed to gay marriage.”

Several attendees said they were shocked two years later, when Romney issued a stern rebuke of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

Left turn on environment

On the environment, Romney seemed interested in carving out an agenda largely in line with the state’s most fervent activists on the left.

After he took office in 2003, some state employees and activists were nervous about how the new governor would approach the climate-change issue. Massachusetts had already reached an agreement with other Northeastern states and some Canadian provinces on a plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Romney surprised them by taking a hands-on approach, personally helping craft a “Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan” that he unveiled in 2004.

He reorganized the state government to create the Office of Commonwealth Development — with the former president of the liberal Conservation Law Foundation, Douglas Foy, as its head — to better coordinate climate work and sustainable-growth activities among different agencies.

As he worked on the plan, according to people familiar with the process, he even overruled some objections by his chief of staff, who criticized the plan as potentially too left-leaning.

Romney backed incentives for buying efficient vehicles, tougher vehicle emissions rules and mandatory cuts in emissions linked to global warming.

The plan not only called for reducing the state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 and cutting them another 10 percent by 2020, but it said that “to eliminate any dangerous threat to the climate . . . current science suggests this will require reductions as much as 75-85 percent below current levels.”

Sonia Hamel, who headed climate work for the state as special assistant to the Office of Commonwealth Development, said her former boss “saw the huge economic and environmental opportunities for the commonwealth inherent in the shift away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy.”

“When he was first governor of Massachusetts, Romney was very thoughtful about the development of our climate plan,” she wrote in an e-mail, adding that he was most enthusiastic about efficiency measures that would save money. “He dug into the details of proposed measures and spent many hours reviewing them with his staff and cabinet members.”

Romney did hedge his bets on one aspect of the report, however. Romney rewrote his cover letter the night before the report was released, emphasizing that it was a valuable plan, whether or not global warming was real.

“Rather than focusing our energy on the debate over the causes of global warming and the impact of human activity on climate, we have chosen to put our emphasis on actions, not discourse,” Romney wrote in the final version. “If we learn decades from now that climate change isn’t happening, these actions will still help our economy, our quality of life and the quality of our environment.”

Beyond the state climate plan, Romney repeatedly pushed to promote clean energy and cut the use of fossil fuels.

In March 2003 he pledged to buy up to $100 million worth
of electricity from renewable sources. That month, he declared, “the global warming debate is now pretty much over.”

Environmentalists were disappointed when Romney, late in his term, shifted course and pulled the state out of the regional greenhouse gas agreement.

Still, he appeared consistent on the global warming question as recently as June, when he officially launched his 2012 campaign. He said then that “the world’s getting warmer,” adding: “I believe that humans contribute to that.”

But last week, he appeared to back away from that stance, saying, “We don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.”