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Romney's Remarks On Abortion Cause A Stir

Mitt Romney's comments on abortion have surprised those on both sides of the issue. (AP)

Just how many abortion positions does Mitt Romney have? Once again, that answer is unclear.

This time the confusion began Tuesday, during a meeting with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register.

"There's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda," Romney said.

He went on to add that he would use an executive order to reinstate the "Mexico City Policy," which bars U.S. aid to international groups that lobby or pay for abortions.

But the comment about not pushing abortion-restricting legislation surprised those on both sides of the abortion debate.

"That's quite a shock, coming from Mitt Romney, who has consistently called for the overturn of Roe v Wade; who said that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would do just that; who has an extensive pro-life agenda on his website that anybody can access," says Beth Shipp, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

That agenda includes things like defunding Planned Parenthood, which would require legislation. Romney has also endorsed legislation to ban abortions at the point fetuses can theoretically feel pain.

In addition to a terse statement from the campaign vowing that, if elected, Romney would "be a pro-life president," the candidate himself tried to walk back some of his comments when asked by reporters at a campaign stop Wednesday.

"I think I've said time and again, I'm a pro-life candidate. I'll be a pro-life president," he said during a rope line in Ohio.

Even before Romney's walk back, however, he was being defended, if somewhat weakly, by abortion opponents.

"No one likes to be caught flat-footed or see your hero flat-footed. But those moments do come," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

Dannenfelser said she thinks Romney's comment to the editorial board was nothing more than a slip — that he just has too much else on his mind to keep issues like abortion front and center.

"I think the simple truth of the matter is his head is in jobs and the economy almost all day long, almost every single day," she said. "And of course we want at least a third of his focus to be on it all the time, but you don't always get everything that you want."

NARAL's Shipp, however, thinks it's anything but an accident — just as it was no accident when Romney said in a CBS evening news interview in August that he supported abortions when the pregnant woman's health — not just her life — was threatened. That position was also reversed later, quietly, by staff.

"I know Mitt Romney really wants women to vote for him," Shipp says. But the way that he's going about this, by lying to people about where he stands on the issues, is not going to serve him well come Nov. 6."

Still, political scientist John Green of the University of Akron says what Romney is doing isn't all that unusual.

"There's a long tradition of candidates adopting one kind of position for a broad audience, maybe on television, then having a different position in direct mail or in smaller venues," he says.

Green says Romney is running into trouble because in today's world of Twitter and nonstop cable news, there's no such thing as being able to deliver different messages to anyone anymore.

"We've discovered over the last couple of election cycles, and we've seen it in many examples this year, is that it's hard to keep those different venues separate because of our communication technology today," Green says.

With an issue as touchy as abortion, that can become even more hazardous, says Green.

"The people who really care about something like abortion, whether they're in the Republican base or the Democratic base, have very firm convictions on where a candidate should stand," he says. "And variation on those convictions can create very real problems."

Those problems include both alienating one's own voters, and mobilizing those on the other side.

At least for now, however, Romney seems to be making it work. There's still nearly a month until Election Day, however, and two more debates to go.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Once again, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has appeared to moderate his position on abortion. "Appeared to" is the operable phrase here because his staff was quick to clarify the candidate's position.

It's not the first time the Romney campaign has walked back a more moderate statement by the former governor. But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, it's a hazardous game to play with an issue as touchy as abortion.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Romney's comment came during his meeting Tuesday with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register.

MITT ROMNEY: There's no legislation with regarding - regards to abortion that I'm familiar with, that would become part of my agenda.

ROVNER: Now, Romney went on to add that he would use an executive order to reinstate a policy that bars U.S. aid to international groups that lobby or pay for abortions. But the comment about not pushing abortion-restricting legislation surprised those on both sides of the abortion debate. Beth Shipp is political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

BETH SHIPP: That's quite a shock, coming from Mitt Romney, who has consistently called for the overturn of Roe v. Wade; who said that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would do just that; who has an extensive pro-life agenda on his website, that anybody can access.

ROVNER: That agenda includes things like defunding Planned Parenthood, which would require legislation. Romney has also endorsed legislation to ban abortions at the point fetuses can theoretically feel pain. The Romney campaign issued a terse statement, calling the candidate, quote, "proudly pro-life." And Romney himself echoed that to reporters, while campaigning in Ohio today.

ROMNEY: I think I've said - time and again - I'm a pro-life candidate; I'll be a pro-life president.

ROVNER: Romney also got defended by allies in the anti-abortion movement - like Marjorie Dannenfelser, of the Susan B. Anthony List. She says she thinks Romney's comment was nothing more than a slip. He just has too much else on his mind, to keep issues like abortion front and center.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: I think the simple truth of the matter is that his head is in jobs, and the economy, almost all day long, every single day; and that of course we want, you know, at least a third of his focus to be on it all the time. But you don't always get everything that you want.

ROVNER: But NARAL's Shipp thinks it's anything but an accident; just as in August, it was no accident when Romney said in a CBS Evening News interview that he supported abortions when the pregnant woman's health - not just her life - was threatened. That position was also reversed later, quietly, by staff.

SHIPP: I know Mitt Romney really wants women to vote for him. But the way that he's going about this - by lying to people about where he stands on the issues - is not going to serve him well, come November 6th.

ROVNER: Political scientist John Green, of the University of Akron, says what Romney is doing isn't all that unusual.

JOHN GREEN: There's a long tradition of candidates adopting one kind of position for a broad audience, such as on television; then maybe having a different position in direct mail, or in smaller venues.

ROVNER: The reason Romney is running into trouble, says Green, is that in the world of Twitter and nonstop cable news, there is no way to deliver different messages anymore.

GREEN: We discovered, over the last couple of election cycles - and we've seen it in many examples this year - is that it's hard to keep those different venues separate because of our communication technology today.

ROVNER: And with an issue as touchy as abortion, that can become even more hazardous, says Green, because a candidate not only runs the risk of alienating his own voters, but of mobilizing those on the other side. At least for now, however, Romney seems to be making it work. There's still nearly a month until Election Day, however, and two more debates to go.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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