Republican Mitt Romney titled his book on how he saved the scandal-ridden 2002 Olympics "Turnaround." Now, as he runs for president, he's trying to fight the perception that he's committed a few too many turnarounds.
The former Massachusetts governor's equivocations on major issues - and outright position changes on others - threaten to derail his nascent 2008 campaign.
As previous White House hopefuls have learned, once a candidate is perceived to have a pattern of inconsistency, labels like flip-flopper and waffler are extremely difficult to shake.
"The problem for Romney is there are so many of these things that go back not so long ago that it becomes a question mark to conservative voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina," said Greg Mueller, a GOP strategist. On the other hand, he said: "They really don't know him yet, which gives him a huge opportunity."
Keenly aware of the dangers, Romney is working to convince skeptical Republicans that he's sincere in his current stances on issues such as abortion and gay marriage that the party's right wing holds dear - and quickly define himself before top rivals John McCain and Rudy Giuliani do it for him.
The television image
Last week, Romney started running TV ads in states with early nominating contests. The ads introduce him as a fresh face who has proven he can get a job done, a "business legend" who "rescued the Olympics" and "the Republican governor who turned around a Democratic state."
With that image, Romney sought to set the terms of his candidacy - and inherently counter an appearance of political opportunism that has dogged him for months and snowballed in recent weeks.
At the root of Romney's challenge is squaring his positions as he tries to run to the right of McCain and Giuliani in the Republican presidential primary with views he voiced when he campaigned as a moderate in an unsuccessful 1994 Senate race and a victorious 2002 governor's race in liberal-leaning Massachusetts.
"There is a sense that Romney has moved too far, too recently, on too much," an editorial in National Review, a conservative periodical, said last week. "At the moment, Romney is running on a businessman's typical theme of competitiveness along with a paint-by-the-numbers collection of conservative positions that seem to have no deeper rationale than getting to the right."
Abortion, gays and gun control
Among Romney's inconsistencies:
- In his two previous campaigns, Romney said that regardless of his own personal beliefs, abortion should be safe and legal. Now, he describes himself as pro-life and argues that Roe v. Wade should be replaced with state abortion regulations.
- In his Senate race, he wrote a letter promising a gay Republican group he would be a stronger advocate for gays and their rights than his liberal opponent, Edward M. Kennedy. Now he emphasizes his opposition to gay marriage and civil unions.
- Then a registered independent, Romney voted in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary for Paul Tsongas. Two years later, he said he did so because he favored the Massachusetts senator's ideas over those of Bill Clinton, and was sure President George H.W. Bush would be renominated. Now, Romney says he backed the candidate he thought might be the weakest opponent for Bush.
- In his first two campaigns, Romney emphasized his support of gun-control measures. In 1994, he said: "I don't line up with the NRA." Now, he is a card-carrying National Rifle Association member. He joined the organization in August.
- Romney used to distance himself from President Reagan. Now he casts himself as a conservative in the mold of Reagan.
"Romney hasn't changed his mind on an issue, he's changed it on just about every issue in this campaign, including immigration, gun control, abortion, gay rights, campaign finance reform, tax cuts, health care, stem cell research — even his own political heroes," the Democratic National Committee chided in a news release last week.
It's a case McCain and Giuliani likely will try to make as well, even though they also have inconsistencies in their records that have generated criticism.
Making a Ronald Reagan connection
Romney, for his part, has spent weeks trying to defend his changes of heart and soothe the concerns of conservatives who question his steadfastness on their core issues.
"I wasn't always a Ronald Reagan conservative. Neither was Ronald Reagan, by the way," he told a conservative gathering in Sea Island, Ga., in early January. "Perhaps some in this room have had the opportunity to listen, learn and benefit from life's experience — and to grow in wisdom, as I have."
A few days later, Romney tried a stronger statement after video from a 1994 debate with Kennedy surfaced. He said: "Of course, I was wrong on some issues back then. I'm not embarrassed to admit that. I think most of us learn with experience. I know I certainly have."
Previous presidential candidates have tried to weather contradictions in their votes and quotes as opponents sought to portray them as equivocating. The charge speaks to a person's credibility and character, raising questions of whether a person takes certain stances because of political expediency instead of core beliefs, and whether they can be trusted.
President Bush seriously wounded Democratic nominee John Kerry's campaign in 2004 by portraying the Massachusetts senator as a flip-flopping liberal. Four years earlier, Bush cast Al Gore as inconsistent on positions like the Strategic Petroleum Oil Reserve and an exaggerator on other matters.
"At the end of the day people want to vote for who they trust, and that's why Bush's message — you might not always agree with me, but you know where I stand — has been so effective," said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist who was Kerry's campaign communications director.