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Romney softens tone on gay marriage

LIVONIA, Mich. -- Governor Mitt Romney, who set off an uproar in Massachusetts with his recent remarks about gay marriage to out-of-state Republican activists, last night appeared to soften his tone, adding language to his stump speech about the need to respect modern families that come in many forms.

Still, speaking before nearly 600 people who attended a fund-raiser for Michigan's GOP state senators, Romney restated his view that ''every child deserves a mother and a father," and praised Michigan voters for their recent approval of a measure banning gay marriage.

Romney's remarks highlighted the careful line he is attempting to walk as he tests the waters for a potential 2008 run for president, aiming at conservative Republicans who vote in GOP presidential primaries.

Massachusetts gay-rights supporters complained that Romney was belittling gay parents last month when, in describing legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, he told a South Carolina GOP audience that, ''Some are actually having children born to them." Activists staged a protest at the State House.

Last night, as he has in recent speeches in Missouri, South Carolina, and Utah, Romney noted that gay marriage is legal in the Bay State, and bemoaned the fact that the state may have to replace ''mother" and ''father" on birth certificates with ''parent A" and ''parent B." But he also added an explanation that, ''I'm not saying this should be about discrimination."

''Americans respect all people. We also recognize that there are many settings where children are raised," he said, citing grandparents and same-sex couples as examples. ''But we choose to recognize one setting as the ideal."

Romney has previously said he opposes discrimination against gays, though his recent political speeches have focused on his opposition to gay marriage. In a Wall Street Journal column last year, he wrote:

''That benefits are given to married couples and not to singles or gay couples has nothing to do with discrimination; it has everything to do with building a stable new generation and nation."

Romney says he opposes gay marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples. Last year, however, he urged Republican lawmakers to support a proposed amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would ban gay marriage and legalize civil unions because, he says, he believed it was the only way to stop gay marriage. The Legislature supported that amendment and would need to pass it once more in order to place it on the ballot in November 2006.

''If the choice is between marriage and civil unions, I support civil unions. But my preference is neither civil unions nor marriage," Romney told reporters last night.

Romney, who ran as a moderate Republican in Massachusetts, faces a difficult balancing act as he lays the groundwork for a possible presidential bid in 2008. This week, Michigan conservative activist Gary Glenn wrote a letter to the Michigan GOP state senators asserting that Romney's views on abortion and gay marriage are ''largely indistinguishable" from Massachusetts Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom called Glenn's letter ''a blatant distortion of the governor's record." Yesterday, Fehrnstrom said that the governor is personally opposed to abortion, and supports parental consent laws and a ban on partial birth abortion. As governor, Romney has taken the position of not changing the status quo on abortion, Fehrnstrom said.

Michigan, which holds an early primary, could prove to be friendly territory for Romney if he does seek the presidency. The site of last night's $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser was not far from Bloomfield Hills, the tony Detroit suburb where Romney grew up. Romney's father, George, who served as governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969, is fondly remembered here.

Like many of the Republicans who dined on filet mignon and chicken stuffed with wild rice at last night's event, 76-year-old Curtis Jacobson, an accountant for the city of Detroit, said he knew and admired George Romney. He said social issues aren't as important to him as economic ones.

''Cut the cost of government," said Jacobson, who has been involved in Republican party politics for 59 years. ''Abortion is between a woman and her doctor."

Social issues loom much larger for most of the current leaders of the Michigan GOP, however. Some of those who received Glenn's letter said Romney assuaged their concerns with last night's speech.

Richard K. Studley, a lobbyist for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, described himself as ''a Christian and a conservative," and he said he listened very carefully to the ''values" portion of Romney's speech.

''I think he answered those questions and put those issues to rest," Studley said.

In remarks aimed squarely at an audience in America's industrial heartland, Romney said last night that government officials, businesses, and labor unions must work together to prevent China from displacing the United States as the world's leading economic power.

''We did not shed our blood on the battlefield of liberty to lose on the battlefield of jobs and the economy," Romney said. ''You can't have a tier-one military and a tier-two economy. The Russians tried that and Ronald Reagan called their bluff."

Without providing specifics, Romney said, ''It's time to get serious with our friends the Chinese."

He added that, ''Right now, they need our market. It's time for us to use our leverage while we still have it."

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