Mitt Romney is undergoing the stiffest test yet of his effort to win over conservatives wary of his ideological credentials.
In the days leading up to the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames on Saturday, Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has come under a furious assault from some of his rivals and the powerful network of abortion opponents in this state. He has been pummeled in videos on YouTube, in automated telephone calls, in daily barrages of e-mail to lists of Republican caucus voters and on the airwaves of the state’s conservative talk radio network.
In almost all cases, the attacks are built on the idea that because Mr. Romney became an opponent of abortion rights only relatively recently, he cannot be counted on as a committed social conservative.
“I’m amazed at the number of people who come to the conclusion to be pro-life when it comes time to run for president,” said Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who is competing against Mr. Romney in the straw poll.
The result is that the campaign for this Republican event — which, by itself, is of questionable political significance this year — has created an environment with national implications for Mr. Romney. Although he is widely expected to win the straw poll easily, the most important aspect of the contest in the long run may not be the outcome so much as the test it presents of his political durability and his explanations to conservatives across the country of how and why his positions — especially on abortion — have evolved in recent years.
‘Such a recent conversion’
“People appreciate his current stance on life and they want to be there, but it’s going to take some time for them to buy in completely,” said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. “Some people are sitting on their hands. I think in the end he can win them over without being a consistent pro-lifer, but there’s just that unease that it’s just such a recent conversion.”
In an interview, Mr. Romney suggested that a victory in the straw poll in Iowa, with its base of evangelical and socially conservative voters, could be read as evidence that the abortion issue would not hobble his hopes of appealing to conservatives across the country.
“If I do well here, my belief is that my message will have connected with the voters in Iowa, and they’ll think that I’m a person who could potentially be their nominee,” he said. “It’s a message that’s much broader than the issue of abortion.”
Should Mr. Romney be proved wrong, this could, for abortion opponents, turn into a case of unintended consequences. The Republican most likely to benefit from Mr. Romney’s faltering might be Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, who is a supporter of abortion rights. But it could also help former Senator Fred D. Thompson, who is expected to enter the race next month and has been trying to position himself as the best alternative for Republicans unhappy with the current field.
Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas has been leading the attacks on Mr. Romney. “Mitt Romney has supported taxpayer funding of abortion,” Mr. Brownback said in a video advertisement he posted on his Web Site and on YouTube, where it had been viewed nearly 11,000 times as of Thursday evening. “These things are stubborn facts.”
The criticism has been amplified by conservative radio talk show hosts, led by Steve Deace, a Des Moines talk show host. Mr. Deace now devotes almost daily parts of his show to attacking Mr. Romney’s shifts on abortion and other issues, including gay rights. “If he has had a sincere conversion on life, no one would be happier than me,” Mr. Deace told listeners Wednesday as he urged them to be wary. “But what is the source of his conviction?”
Mr. Romney was pressed about abortion, as well as his shift toward a tougher line on gay rights, as he campaigned through the state Thursday. In Tama, Mary Schepf, a voter at one of Mr. Romney’s events, pressed him to explain his position; she later said she had been prompted by an e-mail message from Mr. Brownback’s campaign.
‘My greatest mistake in the public sphere’
“I am pro-life,” Mr. Romney said. “I was not always pro-life, but I’m proud I made the same discovery that Ronald Reagan did and Henry Hyde and George Herbert Walker Bush.”
Later, in Grundy Center, he told voters that his past support of abortion rights was “probably my greatest mistake in the public sphere.”
“I was wrong on that,” he told reporters later, adding, “If I could go back and turn back the clock, I would have been pro-life a lot earlier.”
There are signs that Mr. Romney may be feeling the pressure as he seeks to grapple with a wave of conservative critics. In an off-air encounter captured on a camera then posted on YouTube, a conservative talk radio host in Iowa, Jan Mickelson, engaged in a heated debate with Mr. Romney about the genuineness of his commitment to his Mormon faith because of his past views on abortion.
Mr. Romney’s Iowa campaign manager, Gentry Collins, said Thursday that he did not believe Iowa caucus voters would be receptive to the attacks by Mr. Brownback and others.
“They are very astute voters,” Mr. Collins said. “I think they sort of see through that stuff.”
In an interview, Mr. Huckabee said that should Mr. Romney do well in the straw poll, it would be a mistake to interpret that as evidence that he had overcome conservative wariness about him.
“He’s been able to advertise almost completely unchallenged,” Mr. Huckabee said, citing one way in which Mr. Romney’s fund-raising advantage is helping him. “So I don’t know if voters are going to have much of a contrast. Most of the message voters has seen has been his message.”
For Mr. Romney, the question about his past support for abortion rights has been a persistent problem. Although he has been questioned about his consistency on gay rights, gun control and immigration, abortion is the issue that his opponents have used more than any other to try to plant doubts about principles.
“You’re not going to find a YouTube moment of me where I’m saying something different from what I’ve said before,” Mr. Huckabee told voters in West Des Moines the other night.
Adam Nagourney reported from Urbandale, and Michael Luo from Tama, Iowa. Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting from Urbandale.