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Mitt Romney has long opposed same-sex marriage, but he generally casts himself as a staunch supporter of equal opportunity for gays and lesbians.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports on Romney's record on the issue.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Mitt Romney's position on gay rights doesn't quite lend itself to a bumper sticker. Depending on who you ask, it's either too thoughtful and nuanced, or too inconsistent and politically expedient. But it's definitely got Romney on the defensive - as he was last month with the Nashua Telegraph in New Hampshire.

I have the same position on that I had when I ran from the very beginning. I favor gay rights. I do not favor same-sex marriage. That's been my position all along.

The second part is clear: Romney does not favor gay marriage. As he reiterated this morning, he supports the federal Defense of Marriage Act - or DOMA - that bars federal recognition of gay marriage as well as a federal constitutional amendment to do the same.

As governor, he did everything he could to stop gay marriage in Massachusetts after the state's high court allowed it. Romney vowed to keep the state from becoming, as he put it, the Las Vegas of gay marriage.

I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history: Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.

But back during his first political run in 1994, Romney aggressively courted gay voters, promising to do more for, quote, full equality for gays and lesbians than his opponent, Senator Ted Kennedy. Today, Romney denies any inconsistency. Marriage wasn't really even on the table back then. As he explained to CNN's Piers Morgan, he didn't change his position.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SMITH: What happened was that the gay community changed their perspective as to what they wanted.

Romney, who declined to be interviewed for this report, went on to explain that when he talks about gay rights, he's never meant gay marriage but rather, equal opportunity in jobs and housing.

I oppose same-sex marriage. At the same time, I would advance the efforts not to discriminate against people who are gay.

NED FLAHERTY: You cannot in the same breath say that you support non-discrimination against LGBT people, and that you support DOMA. It makes no sense.

SMITH: Ned Flaherty, with Marriage Equality USA, says since job benefits in many cases depend on marital status, Romney can't claim to be for equality and against same-sex marriage.

FLAHERTY: Someone who says that either doesn't know what they're talking about, or they know full well what they're talking about - and hope you don't know what they're taking about.

SMITH: Flaherty says Romney has also contradicted himself on gays in the military. Back in '94, Romney said he viewed "don't ask, don't tell" as a first step toward letting gays and lesbians quote, serve openly and honestly.

But by the time Romney made his first run for president, he argued to keep "don't ask, don't tell," as he explained in 2007 on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MITT ROMNEY: When I first heard of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, I thought it sounded awfully silly and didn't think that would be very effective. And it turned out to be wrong. It's been the policy now in the military for - what? - 10, 15 years, and it seems to be working. And this is not the time to put in place a major change, a social experiment, in the middle of a war going on.

CLARK COOPER: I would call it a retreat from where he was.

SMITH: Clark Cooper, head of a gay-advocacy group called the Log Cabin Republicans, says Romney's position is disappointing, and flies in the face of core conservative principles of federalism.

COOPER: This is...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Welcome to my world. This is the frustration. You know, Governor Romney is not so different from other conservatives.

SMITH: But Romney says a federal definition of marriage is needed as a practical matter, as he explained on CNN in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROMNEY: You really can't have different marriage provisions in different states, and then expect people to be able to move around the nation and have different rights in different states. There should be a national standard. And my own view is that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.

KRIS MINEAU: Governor Romney was a champion on the battle for marriage in Massachusetts right from the get-go. He was rock-solid, and that's never wavered.

SMITH: Kris Mineau, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, has been working with Romney against gay marriage since 2004. Romney may, indeed, have changed tone or emphasis over the years - first, in Massachusetts, stressing that he's for domestic partnerships; then later, in conservative primary states, that he's against gay marriage.

For example, in 1994 he vowed to make, quote, equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern - while a decade later, he was bewailing the fact that same-sex married couples were, quote, actually having children.

But ultimately, Mineau says Romney never actually contradicted himself or flinched in his opposition to gay marriage.

MINEAU: I think he's getting a bum rap. Nothing has changed. And I believe that he's been solid right from the start, and that he will remain solid.

SMITH: But if he makes it through the primaries and advances to the general election, Romney may be tested in that since polls now show a slight majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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