Social Conservatives Track Romney's Move To Center

Mitt Romney appeared to shift his position on contraception in the town hall-style presidential debate last week. And his campaign released an ad, stressing Romney's support for abortion rights under limited circumstances. Social conservatives in Iowa weigh in on whether Romney's shifts on these issues trouble them.

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The tight presidential race suggests Mitt Romney is picking up some of the independent and undecided voters he was hoping to appeal to. We were wondering about the many conservative voters the Republican candidate tried hard to win over during the primary season.

To find out what they're thinking now, NPR's Sonari Glinton went to Iowa, a stronghold of the social conservative movement.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Richard Nixon famously gave Bob Dole some advice about running for president when Dole himself was running against an incumbent Democrat. Essentially, you have to run as far as you can to the right to get the nomination. And to get elected, you have to run as fast as you can back to the middle.

Mitt Romney ran as a conservative during the primaries, but over the past month, has tacked to the center on a range of topics - from health care to taxes, to the war in Afghanistan, and on social issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

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

GLINTON: That audio clip is from an October 9th interview with the Des Moines Register's editorial board. Afterward, the campaign says, the candidate was proudly pro-life, and he will be a pro-life president. But then came the second presidential debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: I'd just note that I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not, and I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not.

GLINTON: Again, this seemed to be a change from the primaries, when Romney said he'd support a Senate provision that would've allowed employers to opt out of providing contraception as part of their health care plans. The same day as that debate, the campaign put out this ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know, those ads saying Mitt Romney would ban all abortions and contraception seemed a bit extreme. So I looked into it. Turns out, Romney doesn't oppose contraception at all. In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: Well, it does give me pause.

GLINTON: Bob Vander Plaats is CEO of the Family Leader, a conservative group in Iowa.

PLAATS: But I think I've come to the realization - as well as many other social conservatives and value voters - is that whether it's Barack Obama or whether it's Mitt Romney on the issue of sanctity of human life, we're probably uncomfortable with both. But we're more uncomfortable in Barack Obama than we are with Mitt Romney, as well as we know that he would have Paul Ryan whispering in his ear on the sanctity of human life.

GLINTON: Vander Plaats says in addition to adding Ryan to the ticket, Governor Romney's strong demeanor in the debate - as much anything he said - gave social conservatives confidence.

At a Republican women's viewing party for this week's debate, I met Christi Taylor of West Des Moines. She says she's conservative and supports Mitt Romney, and for her, the economy trumps social issues.

CHRISTI TAYLOR: We need to lower our debt. Everybody agrees with that. We have to create more jobs. We have to get people back to work. We have to get people stronger education. We have to do something about health care without spending anywhere close to what they're talking about spending.

GLINTON: Meanwhile, Connie Schmett considers herself a values voter, and says she's also fully being the Romney campaign, in part because she wants a new president.

CONNIE SCHMETT: And if we don't have new leadership within the next four years, I am so afraid that I will not have a country for my children.

GLINTON: How do you hold the Republican candidate's feet to the fire about, you know, issues of life and things like that?

SCHMETT: I don't think you can. I think you can put the platform in place. You have letter campaigns. You can say, hey, this is what you promised me, but you cannot absolutely hold that person responsible.

GLINTON: Schmett says she can only hope Mitt Romney won't forget social conservatives if he's elected. But she says, more importantly, a Democrat wouldn't remember them at all.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Des Moines.

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