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Romney targets message to religious voters

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sought to claim Ronald Reagan’s legacy Wednesday, hoping to outflank better-known rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in the crucial battle for the hearts of conservative Christian voters.

A day after he entered the race touting his record of leadership in and out of government, Romney, 59, highlighted his opposition to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research in an interview with TODAY host Matt Lauer.

As recently as four years ago, Romney won election as governor of Massachusetts on an abortion-rights, pro-gay-rights platform, positions he has recently reversed as he courts conservative Christian support. He insisted Wednesday that his last-minute conversion was not political expediency, but a sincere evolution in his beliefs.

“Look at Ronald Reagan, look at other people who likewise came to the same conclusion I have,” said Romney, people who “in the past said they’d leave the law as it was, that they support Roe v. Wade,” the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

“As they delved into it, as they got into the details of what’s going on, as they searched their hearts, they said: ‘You know what? We have so cheapened human life that its important to indicate that we stand on the side of human life.’ And that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

In other forums, Romney has explicitly compared himself to Reagan, who was a Democratic Hollywood labor activist before entering politics as a conservative anti-Communist. In a speech at a gathering of conservatives last month, Romney was quoted as saying: “On abortion, I wasn’t always a Ronald Reagan conservative. Neither was Ronald Reagan, by the way.”

Courting religious conservatives But Romney knows he has work to do to persuade conservative Christian voters that he is a credible carrier of their banner. Another potential barrier is his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which many evangelical Christians view with suspicion.

Romney said Wednesday that the specifics of his religion were not as important to conservative Christian voters as were the strengths of his basic Christian convictions.

“I think I’ve found that people across this country want a person of faith to lead the country, and they don’t particularly care as much about the brand of faith as they do the values the person has. And my values are as American as you can imagine,” he said.

“I believe in God. I believe that all the men and women in this country are children of God — the men and women of the entire world, our brothers and sisters,” he added. “The kind of values which I have in my heart are the kinds of values which America needs.”

Romney’s first stop Wednesday as an official candidate underscores his focus on religious voters. He was to campaign later in the day in South Carolina, where conservative Christian voters derailed the campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2000. Only Thursday does he plan to head to the more traditional early campaign states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Florida.

Polling data suggest that Romney’s wooing of James Dobson and other conservative religious leaders is making inroads. A poll released Tuesday by USA Today found that 72 percent of voters said they would vote for a Mormon if he was otherwise a suitable candidate.

Support for war burnishes military credentialsRomney is following in the footsteps of his father, George Romney, who ran for president in 1968 as governor of Michigan. That campaign was derailed when the elder Romney made comments about the war in Vietnam that eroded conservative voters’ confidence in his military commitment, a mistake his son does not intend to make.

Romney pointed Wednesday to his refusal to abandon an increasingly unpopular stance — support for the war in Iraq in general and specifically for President Bush’s decision to increase the U.S. troop commitment there — as proof of his conservative bona fides and of his ability to get up to speed on foreign affairs.

“What you’re concerned about is to see the Shia portion of the country fall under Iranian lead, to have the Sunni portion become dominated by al-Qaida, perhaps having the Kurdish portion destabilize the borders of Turkey,” he said.

“The implications of a broader conflict throughout the Middle East could also be severe,” he said. “We all want our troops home as soon as we can have them home, but we don’t want them to have to go back and subject to even more potential devastation and loss of life.”

Romney also dismissed suggestions that he is not experienced enough to be president, another area in which he likes to compare himself to Reagan, whose only experience in elective office was as a governor when he was elected president in 1980.

Romney said that he had “done business all over the world” as a highly successful venture capitalist and manager of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, which he is credited for rescuing from massive scandals.

“What I find is people want a fresh perspective. They don’t want the folks that have been slogging it out in Washington and battling over minutiae,” he said.

That makes it attractive, he said, to “look at someone like a mayor, who hasn’t had foreign policy experience, they look a governor, who hasn’t either, other than through their broad life experience, and they look at their ability to make tough decisions to bring people together and to actually get the job done.”

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