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McManus: Is Romney a true conservative?

PoliticsElectionsMitt RomneyReligion and BeliefSocial IssuesAbortion IssueMarriage

For months, Mitt Romney's rivals in the Republican presidential race have hammered him as a closet moderate, especially on third-rail social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

"Mitt Romney: Not conservative," charged one recent and typical television commercial sponsored by supporters of Newt Gingrich.

Is that true? Is Romney really more liberal than he'd have GOP voters believe?

I've been looking back over Romney's history, and for better or worse, the former Massachusetts governor has a more consistently conservative record than he's given credit for. Only in the hothouse atmosphere of a Republican primary campaign could he be considered soft on social issues.

Take gay marriage. Because Massachusetts began allowing same-sex couples to wed while Romney was governor, he has been portrayed by some as soft on the issue.

But the shift came because of a court decision, not legislation, and accounts from the time make it clear that Romney did everything in his power to head off the court's action. Failing in that, he decried the ruling, saying it went against "3,000 years of recorded history." And for the rest of his time in office, he fought the law, at one point ordering county clerks not to perform weddings for gay couples who lived out of state.

When he ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney did say he supported "full equality" for gays and lesbians, a pledge that won him support from homosexual Republicans. But even then he didn't extend that support to gay marriage or to the compromise idea of civil unions. Instead, Romney was merely backing laws to prohibit discrimination against gays in employment and other areas.

In 2008, when aides to presidential candidate John McCain compiled their book of "opposition research" on Romney, one of McCain's main rivals, they concluded that his record was clear on the subject. "Romney is [a] strong opponent of gay marriage," the McCain staff wrote.

The only gay rights issue on which Romney's position has been wobbly has been whether homosexuals should be allowed to serve openly in the military. In 1994, when he was running for the Senate, Romney praised President Clinton's policy of "don't ask, don't tell," calling it a positive step "that will ultimately lead to gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly."

But by 2006, when he decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney had changed course; he said he would keep "don't ask, don't tell" until military leaders wanted a change. Last year, he opposed the Obama administration's decision to scrap the policy, at least until the war in Afghanistan was over — but he added that, if elected, he wouldn't reverse the move.

What about abortion? That's both a little more complicated and a little simpler.

When he ran for the Senate in 1994 and for governor in 2002, Romney cast himself as a stalwart defender of abortion rights. "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose," he said in a 2002 gubernatorial debate.

But by 2007, when he was preparing to run for president, Romney had changed sides. "I was wrong," he told an antiabortion group. "I publicly acknowledge my error."

So, yes, he supported a woman's right to choose early in his career, and then he had a change of heart that he's stuck to since. It's not all that different from Gingrich's insistence that despite his tempestuous marital history, he really does believe in family values. Voters will have to decide whether to accept the changes of heart in both men.

One key to Romney's more nuanced approach to abortion in his earlier career may be his upbringing; his mother was strongly in favor of abortion rights. The Mormon Church opposes abortion, but not as strongly as the Roman Catholic Church or many evangelical denominations. Mormon doctrine opposes "elective abortion for personal or social convenience" but allows abortion in cases of rape, incest, a threat to the health of the mother or a defect "that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth." The church's view on gay marriage is less nuanced: It's opposed.

So is Romney a closet moderate? No. Even on abortion, he's now on board with the social conservatives.

The bigger question is whether it matters. Despite the sound and fury of last week's campaign in conservative South Carolina, the debate over which Republican candidate is most zealous on social issues is unlikely to have much effect on either the GOP nomination or the November general election.

Gay marriage and abortion have been little more than distractions in a year when, as Republican pollster Whit Ayres notes, "Jobs and the economy completely dominate the concerns of voters."

"Gay marriage does not even scratch the list of most important issues facing the country," Ayres says, even among GOP primary voters.

If anything, Romney's views on social issues could pose a problem for him in the general election campaign, especially among independent voters.

A Gallup poll last year found that for the first time, more than half of Americans believe gay marriage should be recognized as valid by the law — including 69% of Democrats and an impressive 59% of independents, but only 28% of Republicans.

"Attitudes on gay marriage have changed more than any other single issue in American culture," Ayres noted.

So, ironically, the issue on which Romney's conservatism is clearest and most consistent now puts him unexpectedly at odds with most of the voters he will face if he wins his party's nomination.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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