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JOAN VENNOCHI

Romney's revolving world

THE ROAD TO the White House gets rocky when you're a Massachusetts flip-flopper.

On Fox News Sunday, Mitt Romney was trying to reconcile a past prochoice statement with his current antiabortion position, when host Chris Wallace interrupted him: ''But I don't understand, Governor," Wallace said.

Join the crowd, Chris. In Massachusetts, neither do we.

Romney says his abortion stance ''has evolved." You might say it ''revolved." Romney's position revolves around where Romney is in his political career: in the Bay State, or beyond.

In some ways, Romney looks promising on the national Republican stage. He is smart, telegenic, and, to date, corruption-free. His criticisms of President Bush and his handling of war with Iraq showcase the political advantages that go along with never casting a vote in the US Senate.

But thanks to Massachusetts, the man born Willard Romney has a Clintonesque ''Slick Willie" image problem to overcome. Romney said certain things to win election here. He will have to answer for them.

Maybe some Republicans will cheer the idea that he snookered the Bay State. But others will ask how much faith voters should put in what Romney is saying now on the presidential campaign trail -- given what he said on the Massachusetts campaign trail. Shouldn't conservatives worry just a bit about a candidate so blatant in his willingness to say what liberals want to hear?

When it comes to abortion, that's exactly what Romney did.

It is worth reviewing just how hard Romney fought to establish prochoice credentials here.

Romney challenged Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994. During a debate, Romney declared: ''I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a US Senate candidate. I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years we should sustain and support it."

When Kennedy called him ''multiple choice," Romney demanded an extra rebuttal. He revealed that a close relative died of an illegal abortion years ago and said, ''Since that time, my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter, and you will not see my wavering on that."

After Romney lost the Senate race, he decamped to Utah to run the Winter Olympics. When it was rumored he might seek political office there, he wrote this in a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake City Tribune: ''I do not wish to be labeled prochoice."

Then, it was back to Massachusetts, a run for governor in 2002, and another turn of phrase regarding abortion. When he announced his candidacy, Romney said: ''On a personal basis, I don't favor abortion. However, as governor of the Commonwealth, I will protect the right of a woman to choose under the law of the country and the laws of the Commonwealth."

On Fox News Sunday, Wallace flashed another Romney statement from the 2002 gubernatorial campaign: ''I believe women should have the right to make their own choice." Romney finally told Wallace that his position evolved to ''very firmly prolife" as he dealt last year with the issue of stem cell research.

Maybe that's the time line of Romney's evolution; maybe not.

Last June, Mike Murphy, a national Republican strategist who helped orchestrate Romney's gubernatorial campaign, told the National Review that, all along, Romney has been ''a prolife Mormon faking it as a prochoice friendly."

When Romney officially came out last June in an opinion piece published in The Boston Globe, he wrote: ''I am prolife. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother."

This week, Romney spokesman Julie Teer told the Boston Herald that if Romney were governor of South Dakota, he would sign a bill that outlaws abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Asked to clarify, Eric Fehrnstrom, another spokesman said, Romney would ''sign the South Dakota bill, but take action to provide the exceptions he favors."

Romney's hard play to the right on abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage is well-documented.

He is entitled to his opinion. But a presidential candidate has a lot of explaining to do when some of those opinions shift with as much blatant expediency as Romney's. Flip-flop.

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

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