COLUMBIA, S.C. — Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has taken pains to prove himself a staunch ally of evangelicals and other social conservatives who dominate the Republican primaries.
He made his combat against legalization of same-sex marriage a hallmark of his governorship of Massachusetts. His support for overturning the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion is a pillar of his campaign for the White House.
And this week, while campaigning in South Carolina, he hired a prominent antiabortion lawyer as his "special advisor on life issues."
"I'm firmly pro-life," he told news crews gathered on a Mount Pleasant fishing dock overlooking Charleston Harbor.
But when he ran for governor of his liberal-leaning state in 2002, Romney pledged to "protect a woman's right to choose." And though his stand against same-sex marriage has not wavered, for years Romney backed gay-rights efforts that he now opposes.
For Romney, 59, the rightward shift on abortion and gay rights poses one of the main challenges of his candidacy: Can he convince social conservatives that he is one of their own and capture his party's nomination? Or will his late-in-life ideological swerve raise too many doubts about whether he shares their core principles?
Those questions have especially strong resonance in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the first states to hold 2008 Republican nomination contests, and both dominated by conservative evangelicals.
Romney's swing this week through South Carolina, including a breakfast stop at a Lizard's Thicket diner in Columbia to greet locals eating grits and waffles, was part of his push to reach those voters. Both of his chief Republican rivals, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, have strained ties with social conservatives.
Challenged from both sides
But two other GOP White House contenders, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have stronger connections with them and have jabbed at Romney for switching stands on abortion rights, which they oppose. Some social conservatives have questioned whether voters will accept the fact that Romney is Mormon.
Democrats, too, have piled on.
"Mitt Romney is a politician who is devoid of any real principles, devoid of any real moral compass," said Phil Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. "I don't think he believes in anything but the advancement of his own political career."
Romney advisor Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina strategist, said McCain, who jousted fiercely with George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential primary here, would inevitably echo those charges. He described the months ahead as a race to introduce Romney -- and explain his changed views on social issues -- before rivals cement the impression that he is a Massachusetts flip-flopper, as President Bush defined his 2004 challenger, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry.
Facing questions on his social-issue turnaround, Romney offered variations of the same rationale: "I've learned from experience," he said in an interview after dialing into two conservative radio shows from the Palmetto social club in Columbia.
Whatever his motive to change, Romney's conservative pivot matches his shift from solidly Democratic Massachusetts to a national Republican nomination race.
"He clearly was a red politician in a blue state, and there was a sense that if he was too conservative on social issues, he had no chance; now it's just the opposite," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and political science at Boston University.
Such is the context of other Romney reversals of positions he took as a Massachusetts candidate for governor in 2002 and as an unsuccessful U.S. Senate nominee in 1994. In addition to his abortion flip, he no longer supports measures to bar job discrimination against homosexuals or to allow them to serve openly in the military.
He once embraced the "don't ask, don't tell" policy as just a first step toward openly gay people in the military. Now, he says the policy should not be changed in a time of war. "The old expression 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' seems to apply," he told reporters Monday.
It was his experience as governor, Romney said, that led him to withdraw his support for a federal bill to bar job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. "Anytime you establish a special-status class, you open another new wave of lawsuit opportunities," he said.
Some gay Republicans who once supported Romney say he double-crossed them. "He basically turned his back on us," said Mike Motzkin, president of Log Cabin Republicans of Massachusetts.
On abortion, Romney's about-face sparked bitterness on one side and wary satisfaction on the other.