DOYLE MCMANUS: Romney's conservatism exceeds general campaign perceptions

By Doyle McManus

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.
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. 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. 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.
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.”
It’s not all that different from Gingrich’s insistence that despite his tempestuous marital history, he really does believe in family values.
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.
So is Romney a closet moderate? No.
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.”
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 percent of Democrats and an impressive 59 percent of independents, but only 28 percent of Republicans.
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 is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanuslatimes.com.