Governor Mitt Romney's top political strategist has told a prominent conservative magazine that his client has been ''faking" his support of abortion rights in Massachusetts.
''He's been a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly," Romney adviser Michael Murphy told the National Review in a cover story hitting newstands today titled ''Matinee Mitt."
Murphy, a prominent Republican consultant, issued a statement of regret yesterday afternoon after a prepublication copy of the article circulated among political strategists and reporters and threatened to overshadow the positive exposure Romney was getting from appearing on the cover of two conservative magazines this week.
''The quote in the National Review article was not what I meant to communicate," Murphy's statement said. ''I was discussing a characterization the governor's critics use. I regret the quote and any confusion it might have caused."
Romney ran for US Senate in 1994 pledging to keep abortion ''safe and legal in this country." As a 2002 candidate for governor, Romney said he would not change the state's abortion laws. But in recent months, he has described himself as ''personally prolife" to out-of-town political audiences. And last month, he told USA Today that he is in a ''different place" on abortion than when he ran in 1994 against US Senator Edward M. Kennedy. A Romney spokeswoman said he had ''evolved over time," but would not elaborate.
Romney's press staff yesterday insisted that the governor has kept his campaign promise to leave the abortion laws of Massachusetts untouched. ''When the governor ran for office in 2002, he promised he would not change the abortion laws of the Commonwealth, and he has kept that promise," said his press secretary, Julie Teer.
Murphy, who works for the Washington-based consulting firm DC Navigators, ran US Senator John McCain's media operations during McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, which used a media bus called ''The Straight Talk Express."
Jane Lane, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Democratic Party, used the consultant's reputation for ''straight talk" to argue that he was telling the truth about Romney. ''It's disturbing when your closest political adviser admits you've been lying your entire political career," Lane said.
Romney is expected to make a decision about his presidential ambitions this fall, less than three years after taking office. He has won attention from conservatives for his stance against gay marriage and against the cloning of human embryos for stem cell research.
Murphy, drawing an analogy between the wealthy governor and former GOP candidate Steve Forbes, told the Weekly Standard: ''He'd be an electable Forbes."
The media buzz surrounding a possible Romney presidential run appears to be intensifying. The Weekly Standard's June 6 issue is dominated by a 6,100-word piece about Romney's electability as a Mormon. The headline: ''In 2008, Will It Be Mormon in America?"
The Weekly Standard article examined whether Romney's religion would be a detriment or an asset in a presidential campaign, noting that Romney's faith could be a plus at a time when devout Christian politicians are ascendant in Washington.
The National Review story took a different tack, recounting the moment when Romney and his sons saved a family whose boat had sunk in a lake near the governor's New Hampshire vacation home, then extolling his fight against same-sex marriage and human embryonic cloning amid a sea of liberals in Massachusetts. The article pointed out that conservatives are wary of Northeastern politicians, but adds: ''their skepticism is well warranted -- but Romney also deserves a fair hearing from them as they search for a successor to President Bush.
''They may come to like the guy," writes John J. Miller, National Review's national political reporter
But the Murphy ''faking it" quote ensured that the media attention was not an unalloyed victory.
Yesterday, Republican Majority for Choice, a national organization supporting abortion rights that endorsed Romney's 2002 gubernatorial candidacy, lashed out at the Massachusetts governor for using the abortion issue as a ''political football" to court primary voters in states like South Carolina.
''When we endorsed Romney in 2002, we believed he was a man of his word and a man of consistency, and he needed our word," said the group's cochairwoman, Jennifer Stockman. ''He's now basically retracting that to pander to the religious right, so it's a game to him, clearly."
Jack Fowler, the National Review's associate publisher and a self-described fan of Romney's, said he interpreted Murphy's remark as an attempt to distinguish Romney from other Northeast Republicans who have tended to be fiscal conservatives but social liberals, especially on the abortion issue.
''I think this is some attempt to tell the folks in Louisiana and Arizona, 'Don't pigeonhole this guy with what you think of the rest of Northeast Republicans," Fowler said. ''He's laid the gauntlet down on certain fights, fighting the good fight, and that's not to be taken unseriously. I like the guy."
But Ron Kaufman, the Republican national committeeman for Massachusetts and a powerful Washington lobbyist, said he doubted that Murphy was targeting a particular voter bloc. Rather, Kaufman speculated, Murphy was probably saying, undiplomatically, that Romney may oppose abortion, but has kept his word as a governor.
''[I] spent a lot of hours on that campaign three years ago, and on this issue, the governor was focused, disciplined, and consistent that if elected governor, he wouldn't change one comma on the laws surrounding life," Kaufman said. ''That was always his answer, and he's kept his word. He's not faking anything."
Romney advisers refused to answer questions yesterday about whether the governor and his consultant spoke after the remark became public. However, Romney's office distributed the Murphy statement of regret.
Murphy and his firm have taken a key role in Romney's operation as the governor assesses his chances in the 2008 presidential contest. The company has helped establish a series of political action committees, called The Commonwealth PAC, on the federal level and in key Republican primary states to win Romney allies among politicians and voters who will presumably help choose the party's next presidential candidate. The PAC's donations helped spur a county Republican committee in Spartanburg, S.C., to invite Romney to speak earlier this year, and the speech was carried live on C-Span as part of the network's ''Road to the White House" series.