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JOAN VENNOCHI

Romney's changing' places'

THIS ISN'T about abortion, this is about trust.

Governor Mitt Romney recently told USA Today he is ''in a different place" on the subject of abortion. He declined to elaborate, but the ''place" he is in is a confusing one and has been for a long time.

As a recent article in the conservative American Spectator concluded: ''As the 2008 GOP nomination contest approaches, many Americans will be watching to see if Mitt Romney is another abortion waffler, or if he has just been holding back all these years." The Spectator labels Romney prochoice, but the author expresses the hope that Romney's position was nothing more than a ruse to win election in liberal Massachusetts.

If that is what he did, what does that say about Romney?

However he tries to position himself now, each time Romney sought office in Massachusetts, he went to great lengths to express support for abortion rights. When he ran unsuccessfully for US Senate in 1994, he pledged to keep abortion ''safe and legal in this country." When he ran for governor in 2002, he said he supported Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, and promised not to change the state's abortion policies.

Indeed, an AP story published in October 2002 in the heat of his battle with Democrat Shannon O'Brien was headlined: ''O'Brien, Romney tout abortion rights credentials." Countering O'Brien's endorsement by Massachusetts pro-choice groups, Romney announced that he was endorsed by the New York-based Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. He mentioned his mother, Lenore Romney, and her commitment to abortion rights when she ran for the US Senate in 1970. His running mate, Kerry Healey, told the AP: ''There isn't a dime of difference between Mitt Romney's position on choice and Shannon O'Brien."

In 2002, Romney also submitted a signed questionnaire to the Massachusetts chapter of NARAL Pro-choice.

According to executive director Melissa Kogut, Romney ''answered most of the questions in a manner indicating commitment to support reproductive choice." The group endorsed O'Brien, but Romney ''was close, I have to say." Adds Kogut: ''I think the message he gave to prochoice voters was, 'rest-assured, I'm going to be there for you.' "

However, as Massachusetts now knows, the Romney message changes, depending on his venue of the moment and the political office of interest to him. In July 2001, Romney wrote to the Salt Lake Tribune, saying, ''I do not wish to be labeled prochoice." At the time, there was speculation he was considering a run for office in Utah, where a prochoice label is not helpful. Much of what he said on the subject of abortion during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign was an effort to distance himself from the words published in the Utah newspaper.

Today, as Romney positions himself for a national campaign, a prochoice position is something, once again, to shed, not tout. He is playing up his personal opposition to abortion in out-of-state speeches. He removed a reference to Roe before signing an annual proclamation celebrating access to birth control. He declined to publicly back a measure expanding access to emergency contraception, even though he said he supported that goal during the 2002 campaign. He did the same rightward repositioning on gay marriage and stell cell research.

It is obvious Romney moderated his views to run in Massachusetts. It is obvious he used Massachusetts as a short-term launching pad for a national campaign. It is obvious he is now running against the state he said he wanted to lead, because running against the people who elected him is the perceived path to a bigger prize.

The GOP mastered the art of exposing shifting positions of presidential hopefuls from Massachusetts. Romney cannot expect to get through serious primary battles without answering tough questions from opponents about his flip-flops on abortion. But for now, he is cruising the country, giving speeches and interviews in an effort to erase what he said to win office in Massachusetts. No one outside the Bay State is pressing him to explain what is now clear, at least not yet.

When Romney wanted to be governor, he was willing to say whatever he deemed necessary to win office. Now that he wants to be a GOP presidential or vice presidential contender, he will say whatever he deems necessary to achieve that goal.

Voters, beware. The subject matter in this instance may be abortion. But the issue is not whether Romney is conservative enough, it is whether he is honest enough.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.


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