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Santorum surge forces Romney to shift focus

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Mitt Romney, who spoke at a campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz., Monday, has begun accenting his conservative views on social issues.

Rick Santorum’s surge in national polls is prompting Mitt Romney to begin talking more explicitly about his own conservative social views, in an attempt to blunt Santorum’s appeal to the Republican base.

Romney had hoped to stay focused squarely on his economic message and downplay social issues that his advisers believe did not play to his strengths as a onetime businessman, Massachusetts governor, and Winter Olympics chief.

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But this week Romney inserted a new line into his stump speech, telling a crowd in Mesa, Ariz., “We were able to enforce, I think it was a 1913 law, that kept Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of same-sex marriage.’’ And yesterday, his campaign circulated an interview with James Bopp Jr., the general counsel of the National Right to Life Committee, vouching for Romney’s “sincere conversion to the pro-life cause.’’

Those comments followed Romney’s speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference last week in which he labeled himself “severely conservative’’ and highlighted his opposition to abortion rights, gay marriage, cloning, and “embryo farming.”

Republican political observers said Romney’s new emphasis on social issues risks taking him off an economic platform that was geared toward a broad, general election audience, and thrusting him into more emotionally charged territory where he has struggled in the past. Charges of ideological inconsistency hurt his last campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

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But, some say, he may have no choice if he is to fend off Santorum, who last week swept nominating contests in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado. Santorum leads in recent national polls of Republicans. In a CBS News/New York Times poll released yesterday, Santorum had support from 30 percent of self-described GOP primary or caucus voters, compared to 27 percent for Romney, 12 percent for Ron Paul, and 10 percent for Newt Gingrich.

Romney has been “pulled out of the Rose Garden and out of the inevitability, and he needs to go out there and compete, and it would have been better for him to do it earlier,’’ said Dave Carney, a Republican political strategist who worked on the presidential campaign of another social conservative, Governor Rick Perry of Texas.

“If he’s successful and pulls it off, he’ll be in good shape,’’ Carney said. “But it’s the phoniness of candidates trying to do that that really turns off voters, particularly base voters.’’

Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked on President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, also expressed concerns.

“It would have been good for Romney to be tacking to the middle by now,’’ he said in an e-mail. “Instead, he is still tacking right, which just makes the job of getting independents on board more difficult.’’

Romney made social issues a central part of his campaign for the nomination in 2008, when he was running to the right of Senator John McCain of Arizona. Back then, he worked hard to court social conservatives, saying they, along with economic and national defense conservatives, made up one of the “three legs of the stool’’ that Ronald Reagan assembled to win the White House.

But because Romney had shifted rightward on some social issues, he faced doubts about the sincerity of his views. Critics pointed out that Romney had been a supporter of abortion rights until 2005, and had argued in 1994, when he was running against Senator Edward M. Kennedy, that “we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern.’’

In a tacit acknowledgement that his heavy emphasis on social issues did not work in 2008, Romney refocused this campaign on his management experience, saying his years in the private sector gave him the skills needed to repair the economy.

In “No Apology,’’ the 2010 book he frequently points to as the foundation of his platform, Romney devotes just two cursory paragraphs to abortion, makes only passing reference to gun rights, and refers to gay marriage in elliptical terms.

But Santorum’s three-state sweep last week prompted Romney to address those issues more directly.

“He’s getting challenged from the right, so what the governor is doing is what he should be doing,’’ said Chip Saltsman, who managed Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign in 2008. “I’d like to see him spend a little more time talking about that.’’

President Obama’s decision to require religiously affiliated organizations to pay for contraceptives for their employees also thrust social issues into the national conversation, causing an uproar from Roman Catholic leaders who portrayed the rule as an attack on religious freedom.

Romney joined in the condemnation of that decision, but also faced criticism from some Catholics because in 2005, he took a similar step, requiring all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.

To be sure, Romney has not abandoned his focus on the economy, particularly in recession-battered Michigan. A new ad he began airing there yesterday highlights his roots in the state and concern for the auto industry. Today, Romney will hold a “roundtable on jobs and big labor’’ in Grand Rapids. Saltsman dismissed the notion that Romney’s focus on social issues would detract from his core economic message.

“He is right to talk about the issues that are important to him, and that’s going to be the economy and that’s jobs,’’ he said. “But it’s not going to hurt him to talk about the social issues, too. You can do both. It’s not either/or.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.
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