ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Once again, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has appeared to moderate his position on abortion. "Appeared to" is the operable phrase here because his staff was quick to clarify the candidate's position.
It's not the first time the Romney campaign has walked back a more moderate statement by the former governor. But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, it's a hazardous game to play with an issue as touchy as abortion.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Romney's comment came during his meeting Tuesday with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register.
MITT ROMNEY: There's no legislation with regarding - regards to abortion that I'm familiar with, that would become part of my agenda.
ROVNER: Now, Romney went on to add that he would use an executive order to reinstate a policy that bars U.S. aid to international groups that lobby or pay for abortions. But the comment about not pushing abortion-restricting legislation surprised those on both sides of the abortion debate. Beth Shipp is political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
BETH SHIPP: That's quite a shock, coming from Mitt Romney, who has consistently called for the overturn of Roe v. Wade; who said that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would do just that; who has an extensive pro-life agenda on his website, that anybody can access.
ROVNER: That agenda includes things like defunding Planned Parenthood, which would require legislation. Romney has also endorsed legislation to ban abortions at the point fetuses can theoretically feel pain. The Romney campaign issued a terse statement, calling the candidate, quote, "proudly pro-life." And Romney himself echoed that to reporters, while campaigning in Ohio today.
ROMNEY: I think I've said - time and again - I'm a pro-life candidate; I'll be a pro-life president.
ROVNER: Romney also got defended by allies in the anti-abortion movement - like Marjorie Dannenfelser, of the Susan B. Anthony List. She says she thinks Romney's comment was nothing more than a slip. He just has too much else on his mind, to keep issues like abortion front and center.
MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: I think the simple truth of the matter is that his head is in jobs, and the economy, almost all day long, every single day; and that of course we want, you know, at least a third of his focus to be on it all the time. But you don't always get everything that you want.
ROVNER: But NARAL's Shipp thinks it's anything but an accident; just as in August, it was no accident when Romney said in a CBS Evening News interview that he supported abortions when the pregnant woman's health - not just her life - was threatened. That position was also reversed later, quietly, by staff.
SHIPP: I know Mitt Romney really wants women to vote for him. But the way that he's going about this - by lying to people about where he stands on the issues - is not going to serve him well, come November 6th.
ROVNER: Political scientist John Green, of the University of Akron, says what Romney is doing isn't all that unusual.
JOHN GREEN: There's a long tradition of candidates adopting one kind of position for a broad audience, such as on television; then maybe having a different position in direct mail, or in smaller venues.
ROVNER: The reason Romney is running into trouble, says Green, is that in the world of Twitter and nonstop cable news, there is no way to deliver different messages anymore.
GREEN: We discovered, over the last couple of election cycles - and we've seen it in many examples this year - is that it's hard to keep those different venues separate because of our communication technology today.
ROVNER: And with an issue as touchy as abortion, that can become even more hazardous, says Green, because a candidate not only runs the risk of alienating his own voters, but of mobilizing those on the other side. At least for now, however, Romney seems to be making it work. There's still nearly a month until Election Day, however, and two more debates to go.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.