Romney weighs balance with pro-life views

Must appeal to moderate vote

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WORTHINGTON, Ohio — As the Republican standard-bearer this year, Mitt Romney, a late-in-life convert to the pro-life cause, finds himself at the helm of a party staking out an increasingly absolute opposition to abortion, even as he tries to woo moderate voters he’ll need to win on Election Day.

That’s come to a head this week as Mr. Romney grapples with Richard Mourdock, the GOP’s Senate candidate in Indiana, who said during a debate that if a pregnancy results from rape, the life is still precious and “something that God intended to happen.”

The political uproar has muddied Mr. Romney’s campaign narrative at a time when the former Massachusetts governor is riding a wave of momentum in the polls and hopes to close out the campaign with the economic message he launched his second bid for the presidency with nearly 17 months ago.

Mr. Romney refused again to weigh in on Mr. Mourdock’s comments Thursday, ignoring reporters’ shouted questions. His campaign has said he disagrees with what Mr. Mourdock said, but he has not withdrawn his endorsement as President Obama has demanded.

The Romney campaign argues it’s not his job to referee the party’s down-ticket candidates. Instead, he will focus on his economic message and argue that’s the brand the GOP is carrying in this election.

“This is an election that is being viewed by most voters through the lens of the economy,” said Kevin Madden, a top Romney adviser. “Voters who have a strong interest in the life issue will know where the candidates stand and what their differences are.”

Republican candidates are giving Democrats plenty of chances to try to focus back on abortion, though.

Earlier this year Rep. W. Todd Akin, Republicans’ nominee for the U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, said women’s bodies have ways of rejecting pregnancies that result from “legitimate rape.”

In that instance, Mr. Romney joined a chorus of Republicans in calling on Mr. Akin to drop out of the race. But in the case of Mr. Mourdock, Mr. Romney has been more muted — and some analysts said that’s a sign of strength on the campaign’s part.

“The statements were very different and at that stage he was trying to get some oxygen in his campaign,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, a Republican and Romney supporter. “I guess they felt they did not want the social issues to define him in the campaign when he didn’t have traction yet. After the debate, Romney was in a far stronger position. Now when people look to him, he can stand on his own two feet.”

Mr. Romney evolution on the life issue — from pro-choice to pro-life — has been well documented and has given opponents an opening to attack him as a political opportunist.

He says he opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is endangered. He also has made inconsistent statements on whether he supports an exception in cases of the mother’s health.

Many conservatives go further, though, arguing that if life begins at conception, then there can be no exceptions under the law. These pro-lifers have defeated efforts to insert those exceptions into the Republican Party anti-abortion plank, leaving the party officially silent on them.

The dispute pits Republicans against each other, with Mr. Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, on the conservative end, and those such as Sen. Scott P. Brown Massachusetts on the other end.

Polls show that abortion remains a top concern for many women voters, even in an election that has largely been seen as a referendum on Mr. Obama’s economic policies.

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