Romney's Remarks On Abortion Cause A Stir

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Just how many abortion positions does Mitt Romney have? Once again, that answer is unclear.

This time the confusion began Tuesday, during a meeting with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register.

"There's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda," Romney said.

He went on to add that he would use an executive order to reinstate the "Mexico City Policy," which bars U.S. aid to international groups that lobby or pay for abortions.

But the comment about not pushing abortion-restricting legislation surprised those on both sides of the abortion debate.

"That's quite a shock, coming from Mitt Romney, who has consistently called for the overturn of Roe v Wade; who said that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would do just that; who has an extensive pro-life agenda on his website that anybody can access," says Beth Shipp, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

That agenda includes things like defunding Planned Parenthood, which would require legislation. Romney has also endorsed legislation to ban abortions at the point fetuses can theoretically feel pain.

In addition to a terse statement from the campaign vowing that, if elected, Romney would "be a pro-life president," the candidate himself tried to walk back some of his comments when asked by reporters at a campaign stop Wednesday.

"I think I've said time and again, I'm a pro-life candidate. I'll be a pro-life president," he said during a rope line in Ohio.

Even before Romney's walk back, however, he was being defended, if somewhat weakly, by abortion opponents.

"No one likes to be caught flat-footed or see your hero flat-footed. But those moments do come," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

Dannenfelser said she thinks Romney's comment to the editorial board was nothing more than a slip — that he just has too much else on his mind to keep issues like abortion front and center.

"I think the simple truth of the matter is his head is in jobs and the economy almost all day long, almost every single day," she said. "And of course we want at least a third of his focus to be on it all the time, but you don't always get everything that you want."

NARAL's Shipp, however, thinks it's anything but an accident — just as it was no accident when Romney said in a CBS evening news interview in August that he supported abortions when the pregnant woman's health — not just her life — was threatened. That position was also reversed later, quietly, by staff.

"I know Mitt Romney really wants women to vote for him," Shipp says. But the way that he's going about this, by lying to people about where he stands on the issues, is not going to serve him well come Nov. 6."

Still, political scientist John Green of the University of Akron says what Romney is doing isn't all that unusual.

"There's a long tradition of candidates adopting one kind of position for a broad audience, maybe on television, then having a different position in direct mail or in smaller venues," he says.

Green says Romney is running into trouble because in today's world of Twitter and nonstop cable news, there's no such thing as being able to deliver different messages to anyone anymore.

"We've discovered over the last couple of election cycles, and we've seen it in many examples this year, is that it's hard to keep those different venues separate because of our communication technology today," Green says.

With an issue as touchy as abortion, that can become even more hazardous, says Green.

"The people who really care about something like abortion, whether they're in the Republican base or the Democratic base, have very firm convictions on where a candidate should stand," he says. "And variation on those convictions can create very real problems."

Those problems include both alienating one's own voters, and mobilizing those on the other side.

At least for now, however, Romney seems to be making it work. There's still nearly a month until Election Day, however, and two more debates to go.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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