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Activists remember a different Romney

They say he wooed them when he ran for governor by tilting left on the environment, gay rights and abortion.

March 25, 2007|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — As an abortion-rights advocate, Deborah Allen did not think she would find much in common with Mitt Romney. Then she heard his pitch.

If elected Massachusetts governor, Romney said in an endorsement meeting, he would "preserve and protect" legal abortion. The judges he picked would probably do the same. And then he said something so unexpected that Allen began to see Romney, a Republican whom she had considered an uncertain ally, as sincere in his search for common ground.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Mitt Romney: A biographical box that accompanied a Sunday Section A article about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he lives in Benton, Mass. He lives in Belmont, Mass.

"You need someone like me in Washington," he said, according to Allen and two other abortion-rights activists, whose group was deciding whether to endorse Romney in the 2002 race for governor. Though running for state office, Romney hinted at national ambitions and said he would soften the GOP's position on abortion. The Republians' hard-line stance, he said, was "killing them."

Today, Romney is running for president and promising to pull the Republican Party in the opposite direction, returning it to the conservative principles of Ronald Reagan. He has renounced his support for abortion rights and has shifted his language on gay rights, campaign finance and other issues, bringing him more in step with Republican voters. He mocks Massachusetts, the state he led until January, as "sort of San Francisco East, Nancy Pelosi-style."

Though Romney's policy shifts have become widely known, his meetings with activists for abortion rights and other causes -- which have received far less attention -- show he put much work into winning support from Massachusetts' liberal establishment only a few years ago.

Making personal appeals on the state's liberal touchstones -- gay rights, abortion rights and the environment -- Romney developed a persuasive style, convincing audiences that his passion matched theirs and that he was committed to their causes.

He impressed environmentalists by using rhetoric sharper than theirs. He met gay-rights activists on their turf, in a restaurant attached to a popular gay bar, and told skeptics he would be a "good voice" and a moderating force within his party.

And in many cases, he said his commitment had been cemented by watching the suffering of someone dear to him: a grandchild whose asthma left him worried about air pollution; his wife's multiple sclerosis, which had him placing hope in embryonic stem cell research; the death of a distant relative in an illegal abortion, convincing him that the procedure needed to remain legal.

In discussing the need to combat global warming, he said he worried about his family's favorite vacation spot.

"He talked a lot about his kids and his family and the place they go to in New Hampshire on vacation," said Cindy Luppi, an official from the group Clean Water Action, who was impressed by Romney's concern about global warming in a 2003 meeting -- and later disappointed when he unexpectedly pulled the state out of a regional compact on greenhouse gases.

"We really see these as promises that were made and broken, and an ethical breach for a person of faith who had worked really hard to create this public image as an upright kind of a family guy."

The Romney campaign said that Romney never broke a promise he made to activists, and that any discrepancies stemmed from interest groups' mistakes or agendas.

"People's memories change with time, and change depending on which way the political winds are blowing," said Eric Fehrnstrom, an advisor to Romney both when he was governor and now that he's a presidential candidate.

Campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney ran for governor "as someone interested in fixing a broken state with what then was a languishing economy ... making the case that he was someone with the energy and the resume and the experience to get things done."

Abortion reversal

When Romney tried to unseat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994, he was accused of wavering on abortion rights. In one stinging exchange that echoed through the campaign, Kennedy said: "I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple-choice."

Running for governor, Romney told Allen and other officers of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts that he would steadfastly support abortion rights.

"There's a benefit to simplicity. I'm a strong believer in stating your position and not wavering," he said at the 2002 meeting with the group, according to notes taken by then-NARAL officer Nicole Roos that were private until being shared with the Los Angeles Times.

According to her notes, Romney insisted that only a "crisis" would cause him to change his mind on abortion. When the activists asked for an example of a crisis, he drew a puzzling parallel, noting that a Soviet attack on the U.S. might prompt an anti-tax president to raise taxes.

"I want to be really careful about not changing my position," Romney said, according to the notes. "I will do what I say I'll do."

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