boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Romney says he erred on abortion

Seeks to reassure Republican base

From left, Republican presidential candidates Tommy Thompson, Sam Brownback, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, and Duncan Hunter gathered yesterday before the debate at Drake University in Des Moines. Not pictured is Tom Tancredo, who urged a political and economic solution to accompany the military strategy in Iraq. From left, Republican presidential candidates Tommy Thompson, Sam Brownback, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, and Duncan Hunter gathered yesterday before the debate at Drake University in Des Moines. Not pictured is Tom Tancredo, who urged a political and economic solution to accompany the military strategy in Iraq. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney yesterday called his onetime support for abortion rights his greatest personal and political mistake, and sought to reassure voters during a Republican presidential debate that he is a reliable and determined foe of abortion, an issue important to the party's religious conservatives.

The 90-minute debate was heavy with Republican attacks on Democrats for their antiwar views and approach to foreign policy. But Romney and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani were on the defensive for their positions on abortion, underscoring the simmering trouble the issue poses for two of the leading candi dates in the nine-member GOP field.

Giuliani was alone in reiterating that abortion is a decision that a woman should make "with her conscience and, ultimately, with her doctor." And Romney insisted that he had undergone a change of heart during his tenure as Massachusetts governor, and now is staunchly opposed to abortion.

"I get tired of people that are holier-than-thou because they've been prolife longer than I have," Romney said, responding to what he called a "desperate" campaign by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas to convince Iowa voters that Romney has flip-flopped on the volatile issue.

Largely uniting on a GOP political strength -- national security -- the candidates expressed a strong commitment to staying in Iraq, with Senator John McCain of Arizona calling it a critical battleground in the fight against "radical Islamic extremism." Several contenders took a shot at Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama, criticizing the Illinois senator's comments that he would consider sending US troops to find terrorist cells in Pakistan if the country's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, did not take sufficient action against them.

Pressed by ABC moderator George Stephanopoulos, Giuliani acknowledged that he would not rule out such an attack if it was the only way to protect Americans.

"I would take that option if I thought there was no other way to crush Al Qaeda, no other way to crush the Taliban, and no other way to capture [Osama] bin Laden," Giuliani said.

Romney also needled Obama for saying he would be willing to meet with leaders of rogue nations in his first year in office -- an issue that caused a tussle between Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton of New York in a Democratic debate.

"In one week he went from saying he's going to sit down, you know, for tea, with our enemies, but then he's going to bomb our allies," said Romney. "I mean, he's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week."

Obama spokesman Bill Burton dismissed Romney's comments.

"Before he makes more false accusations, Mitt Romney should tell us why he believes we should keep 160,000 American troops in the middle of someone else's civil war but not take out Osama bin Laden if we had him in our sights," Burton said.

On Iraq, the contenders each fought to be the strongest supporter of the war, praising the performance of the troops and saying progress was being made in bringing stability to the troubled nation. McCain said that the war had been "badly mismanaged" during the initial years, but that "we do now have a strategy that is succeeding."

Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado urged a political and economic solution to accompany the military strategy. Representative Duncan Hunter of California derided the Democrats for their antiwar position. "It was a race to see who could stampede to the exit the quickest," Hunter said of the Democrats' last debate.

Only Representative Ron Paul of Texas -- one of the few Republicans to vote against the 2002 resolution authorizing force in Iraq -- called for a withdrawal of US forces.

"We're losing this one. We shouldn't be there. We ought to just come home," Paul said.

The debate at Drake University in Des Moines was the last group meeting of the GOP candidates before a straw poll Saturday in Ames, Iowa. While not binding, the poll has historically given an early indication of which GOP candidates have the support to sustain a prolonged primary campaign.

McCain and Giuliani decided this year not to actively compete in the straw poll, while Romney has run an aggressive broadcast and on-the-ground campaign there. A poll released yesterday by The Washington Post and ABC indicates Romney's efforts are paying off: Romney led the pack with 26 percent support among those polled, followed by Giuliani and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, who party activists believe will announce his candidacy this fall.

McCain was tied at 8 percent of the vote with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, whose credentials as a consistently antiabortion Baptist minister have brought him a small following among religious conservatives in the party.

Most national and statewide polls have shown Giuliani, Romney, and McCain as the leading contenders among the announced GOP candidates.

But some social conservative leaders say they are not happy with the top tier of the field. Giuliani's support for both abortion rights and domestic partnerships for gays has upset the conservative wing of the party.

Romney's previous remarks in favor of gay rights and abortion rights -- while he has since come out against abortion and same-sex marriage -- have made some social conservatives wary. And many in the party are unhappy with McCain's support for campaign finance reform, arguing that the law makes it harder for conservative groups to be heard in political campaign.

Socially conservative candidates struggling in the polls have seized on those issues to peel away at the front-runners' support. Brownback yesterday defended an automated phone campaign he has launched in Iowa, attacking Romney's shifting stance on abortion.

Huckabee, in remarks made after the debate, suggested he also was unconvinced of Romney's antiabortion credentials.

"We have won on a platform of being prolife for the last 30 years," Huckabee said, when asked about Romney and Giuliani's records on abortion. "I'm going to respect Governor Romney's position today as the one he holds, and I hope it will be the one he will hold tomorrow."

During the debate, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson said that "anyone who's prochoice is going to have difficulty" in the election.

Romney acknowledged his switch on the issue but said he is now fiercely antiabortion. "I was prochoice. I am prolife. I never said I was prochoice, but my position was effectively prochoice. I've changed my position," he said.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES