Some social conservatives in the important primary state of South Carolina are expressing skepticism about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after reports of statements from the Massachusetts governor that were pro-choice, in favor of expansive gay rights, and dismissive of Ronald Reagan.
For some, the concern stems not from any single, disqualifying position, but rather a combination of statements from Romney's political career. "When it becomes a pattern, that's what causes people to be fearful," says Oran Smith, head of the pro-life Palmetto Family Council, who has not committed to any candidate in the race. "The Reagan thing, the abortion thing, the gay thing — if you mix all of that together, is there a pattern?"
The first statement to which Smith refers is one that is being e-mailed around Republican circles these days. It is from Romney's now-famous debate with Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy during the 1994 Senate campaign. In the debate, Kennedy tried to portray Romney as a turn-back-the-clock conservative, and Romney took exception, essentially disavowing Reagan. On October 27, 1994, the Boston Herald reported the exchange this way:
Kennedy attempted to link Romney several times during the debate to conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and accused him of trying to return the country to the policies of the Reagan-Bush administrations.
Romney objected to the characterizations, saying: "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."
Romney has sought throughout the campaign to portray himself as a "Bill Weld Republican" who is liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal matters.
"You cannot slam Ronald Reagan or disrespect Ronald Reagan in a state like South Carolina," says Ed McMullen, head of the economically-oriented South Carolina Policy Council. "This man is the true ideological backbone of what Republicans in South Carolina believe." (Neither the Council nor McMullen has endorsed a candidate for 2008, although McMullen supported Sen. John McCain in 2000.) "Ronald Reagan has an almost deity status," adds David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson who is not aligned with any campaign. "It's the kind of status, with the core base in South Carolina, where everyone expects to hear a Republican politician say something nice about Reagan." A number of GOP activists say Romney's Reagan comments, although they have not received any press coverage, are circulating widely among South Carolina conservatives.
"The governor has said that one of his political heroes is Ronald Reagan," Romney spokesman Jared Young tells National Review Online. "I don't know how that squares with what he said in '94, but I do know that he greatly respects Ronald Reagan and his vision and leadership for America, and would fancy himself to be a similar type of person."