New York Times: G.O.P. Hopefuls Press Romney on Abortion Rights

This article originally appeared online at The New York Times on June 24, 2011.

G.O.P. Hopefuls Press Romney on Abortion Rights

By Trip Gabriel

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Seeking to distinguish themselves from Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican front-runner in the 2012 presidential race, challengers exploited a bit of daylight that opened between him and other candidates this week over abortion. 

“This is not the time for the Republican Party to put up a candidate who is weak on the pro-life issue or has a history of flip-flopping over it,” Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota told the National Right to Life convention here on Friday.

She pressed the attack after another primary contender, Rick Santorum, declared last weekend that he was “stunned” by Mr. Romney’s refusal to sign a sweeping anti-abortion pledge. 

The issue dredged up Mr. Romney’s awkward history on abortion rights — he was for them while running for Massachusetts governor in 2002 before becoming an opponent — a record that damaged him with conservative voters in his failed bid for the Republican nomination in 2008.

This year his campaign is premised on the conviction that what voters care most about is the economy, and that Mr. Romney’s résumé as a business executive will trump concern over his credentials as a social conservative. 

So far the strategy seems successful, with Mr. Romney leading in early polls. 

Mrs. Bachmann’s and Mr. Santorum’s jabs on the abortion issue raise the question of whether it can still be a decisive point for Republican primary voters, who are more conservative in some early-voting states. 

Mrs. Bachmann sought to push that advantage. “There are indeed major problems in our country, that goes without saying,” she told the convention audience, speaking by a Skype connection over the Internet. “The importance of these issues does not for a moment mean the life issues should take a back seat.”

A spokesman for Mr. Romney declined to comment, seeking to portray the dispute as a minor one that had already played out in the news media.

But some political analysts said evangelical Christians already skeptical of Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith could be driven further away by the abortion issue.

Ted G. Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has written about abortion politics, said: “It’s something to hang your hat on: ‘How do I oppose a Mormon without seeming to be a bigot?’ Well, he’s not solid on abortion.”

Mr. Romney’s distancing himself from abortion-rights groups, however, could also play in his favor in early-voting New Hampshire, where the Republican primary is open to independents. Many have a libertarian streak and want government out of people’s personal lives, said Dean Spiliotis, a political scientist at Southern New Hampshire University. “I think it’s a clear attempt to play well in New Hampshire,” he said. 

It is unclear how strongly abortion might affect voters’ decisions in 2012. Less than 1 percent told a New York Times/CBS News poll this year and last that abortion was the top problem facing the country. 

But the issue retains its power to stir passions on both sides. Anti-abortion activists and their elected supporters have chipped away at abortion’s availability in many states. Republicans in the House almost succeeded in blocking a budget compromise in April over federal financing for Planned Parenthood

That issue is sure to resurface in the general election next year. 

Mr. Romney, in laying out his anti-abortion credentials in an essay for National Review Online on June 18, wrote that he agreed with ending government grants to Planned Parenthood (which is barred already from using the money to pay for abortions). 

He clarified why he would not sign the “Pro-Life Leadership Presidential Pledge” from the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that raises money for anti-abortion candidates. Five other primary candidates have signed: Mrs. Bachmann, Mr. Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. 

Mr. Romney objected to the pledge’s requirement of a litmus test on the issue for key presidential appointees overseeing health agencies and the Department of Justice. He also said that its call to end support for all institutions that perform abortions could have unintended consequences. 

“It is one thing to end federal funding for an organization like Planned Parenthood,” he wrote. “It is entirely another to end all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America.”  

The president of the Susan B. Anthony List, Marjorie Dannenfelser, responded that Mr. Romney misinterpreted the pledge. 

Another candidate who did not sign, Herman Cain, a former pizza-chain executive, said he thought it infringed on the separation of government powers. 

Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor who entered the primary race on Tuesday, said that day that he disagreed with signing pledges on principle. 

 Mr. Santorum spoke passionately here of his commitment to the anti-abortion cause, telling several hundred activists, “You are the warriors out there on an unpopular front.”

In a brief interview after leaving the stage, Mr. Santorum criticized Mr. Romney for being unwilling to pledge that he would give authority over health and law enforcement agencies to foes of abortion. 

“When you do not follow through and put people in key positions that reflect the position you hold, I think it’s legitimate to question whether you really hold those positions deeply,” he said.  

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