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Despite GOP criticism, Romney holds ground

This time around, he steers clear of shifts in stances

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney reiterated his focus on the economy and job creation in a campaign stop in Derry, N.H., yesterday, a day after participating in a GOP debate. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney reiterated his focus on the economy and job creation in a campaign stop in Derry, N.H., yesterday, a day after participating in a GOP debate. (Charles Krupa/ Associated Press)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 15, 2011

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DERRY, N.H. — Four years ago, Mitt Romney was accused of abandoning positions he had held in Massachusetts and replacing them with views more in line with national Republican voters. His supportive stands on abortion rights and gay rights turned into firm opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage on the presidential campaign trail.

Now, eager to avoid being re-labeled a flip-flopper, he appears more reluctant to switch positions, even if it puts him out of step with the current brand of Republicanism.

Romney has defended his health care plan in Massachusetts — and its mandate on individuals to buy insurance — even though it provided the template for President Obama’s national plan so despised by Republicans. He has continued to maintain that humans contribute to global warming, even though most Republicans believe otherwise.

He has also continued to defend his position opposing the auto bailout, even as Chrysler and General Motors have again become profitable.

The issues have given Rom ney a new opportunity to project himself as a candidate who has core convictions.

“Last time he switched positions to what he thought people wanted,’’ said Doug Gross, who in 2008 was Romney’s state chairman in Iowa but is now unaligned. “I think he has matured as a politician and understands you need to be true to your own instincts and philosophies. I think we’re seeing the real Mitt Romney.’’

But the former Massachusetts governor has also come under withering criticism from influential Republican voices — including the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the Club for Growth — that could damage his standing in a Republican Party that tacked to the right during the midterm elections.

“Bye bye nomination,’’ commentator Rush Limbaugh said on his show last week, after Romney stood by his global warming position at a town hall in Manchester, N.H.

But current and former advisers say there has been a renewed emphasis on building the campaign around what Romney wants to talk about — the economy — rather than trying to make him appeal to a variety of constituencies. It is one reason he’s not competing as aggressively in Iowa, where the caucuses can emphasize social issues such as abortion.

One of the few moments he appeared uncomfortable during Monday night’s debate in New Hampshire was when he was asked whether he would reinstate the military’s policy of barring gays from serving openly in the military.

“We ought to be talking about the economy and jobs,’’ Romney said, before criticizing the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ but not saying whether he would seek to reinstate it.

His rivals brushed aside several opportunities to criticize Romney or question his past shifting positions. Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania came closest when asked whether voters should be skeptical of Romney’s opposition to abortion.

“I think an issue should be looking at the authenticity of a candidate and their record over time,’’ Santorum said. “You can look at my record.’’

During the previous campaign, Romney came under fire for trying to be all things to all people. At one point, for example, he proclaimed himself “pretty much a lifelong hunter,’’ only to have his spokesman struggle to identify more than two episodes of hunting in his life. Even the guns kept in Romney’s then-vacation home in Utah turned out to be owned not by him but by one of his sons.

Romney later clarified to say that he hunted “small varmints,’’ leading one rival, former governor Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, to joke last month at a New Hampshire gun shop that he hunts “large varmints.’’

During his last campaign, Romney also adamantly opposed abortion and gay marriage, positions that were in stark contrast to ones he took when running for US Senate against Edward M. Kennedy in 1994. At that time, he said he would be a greater advocate for gay rights than Kennedy. He also talked up his support for abortion rights.

Romney has remained against abortion and gay marriage during this campaign, but he rarely talks about the issues.

“Authenticity is how you connect with voters and understand their concerns,’’ said Kevin Madden, a 2008 Romney adviser who has remained close to the campaign. “People right now are anxious and concerned about the economy, and Mitt Romney is anxious and concerned about the economy. So there’s your connection.’’

Romney took something of a victory lap here yesterday, after receiving positive reviews of his performance in the debate.

As he returned to a pair of businesses he visited during his first White House campaign in 2008 — Derry Feed & Supply and Benson Lumber & Hardware — Romney sought to focus on the ailing economy.

As if on cue, as the candidate walked down the street with a horde of media trailing him, a woman approached Romney and said her husband, a civil engineer, had gone to Saudi Arabia after getting laid off.

“My husband’s lived for three years in Saudi Arabia cause there’s no jobs in this country,’ ’’ Mary Ellen Zarba, a 51-year-old mother of three from Derry, told Romney. “What can you do to bring him home?’’

Romney did not offer many specifics but said, “If I’m president of the United States, there will not be a day that I’m not getting briefed on and thinking about bringing American jobs into America.’’

In between stops yesterday at two New Hampshire diners — one in Manchester, one in Derry — Romney dropped by McDonald’s.

At one point, Romney posed with several waitresses at MaryAnn’s Diner in downtown Derry. He squirmed, shouted, “Oh, my goodness!’’ and acted as though someone had grabbed his backside. He said later he was playing a joke.

“It was just funny,’’ Romney said. “I was just teasing the girls.’’

He said that one time four years ago a donor had grabbed him while posing for a photo with him.

“They gave me a good grab, and made me jump,’’ he said. “I got such a rise out of everybody in the room that I thought, ‘Well that’s kind of fun to do.’ ’’

Romney also attempted some wry humor yesterday morning in Manchester, talking with the owner of the Blake’s Restaurant after meeting with diners.

“I saw a young man over there with eggs Benedict, with a hollandaise sauce with the eggs there,’’ Romney said. “And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce in hubcaps. Because there’s no plates like chrome for the hollandaise.’’

The woman laughed awkwardly.

“Sorry,’’ Romney said, and made his way toward the exit.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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