SOUTHFIELD, Mich. -- As other Republican candidates have stumbled their way toward the presidential primaries, Mitt Romney has put together what would seem to be all the elements of a winning campaign: an effective staff, a robust treasury and smooth, knowledgeable performances both in debates and on the trail.
But for months, the threshold of support for the former Massachusetts governor hasn't inched above a quarter of Republican voters in national polls. For many GOP voters in early primary states, hesitation about Romney comes back to one thing: their perception that he has routinely molded his views to suit the political mood, with ambition his overriding principle.
"He's not a person we could trust to lead our country," said Angela Cesar, a 41-year-old Republican from Ypsilanti, Mich., who said Romney had changed his position on too many issues. "He's going to be listening to voices outside. I want someone who can hear his own voice -- a clear voice."
Steve Holroyd, a 54-year-old chef from Rye, N.H., was initially attracted to Romney's candidacy, but now describes him as evasive: "The more I listen to him, the more he just kind of flip-flops and doesn't know where he stands on anything."
Romney's advisers say the argument that their candidate is a political contortionist will not resonate because voters are concerned about the economy -- and little else. But in his failed 2008 bid, when the issue was raised -- as now -- by opponents, it hit its mark not because of the issues involved but because of what Romney's flip-flops suggested about his character.
The campaign demonstrated sensitivity to the problem in this race: Romney has strongly defended the health insurance mandate that he instituted in Massachusetts, even though it is reviled by GOP voters, rather than reverse himself on it. Romney's aides have also leveled charges of flip-flopping at GOP rival Rick Perry and at President Barack Obama, who Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said has "a new slogan and a new mission every day."
Asked about the criticism during a recent Michigan debate, Romney said: "I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy."
For Democrats and the other Republican candidates, the weeks ahead are likely to center on Romney's inconsistencies.
The Democratic Party has devoted a website -- whichmitt.com -- to cataloging anything that could be interpreted as a contradictory statement by Romney. Last month on NBC's "Meet the Press," senior White House adviser David Plouffe charged that Romney has "no core."
Texas Gov. Perry's campaign has released a series of videos accusing Romney of contradicting himself on a range of issues. Rival Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, released a Web video comparing Romney to a back-flipping toy monkey and told CNN that Romney was a "perfectly lubricated weather vane." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told talk radio host Laura Ingraham that there was "no point in beating Obama with somebody who is confused about who they are and what they believe."
Before socially conservative audiences, several presidential candidates have tried to chip away at Romney's credibility by alluding to his most dramatic shift: his conversion from supporting to opposing abortion rights.
In 1994, when Romney challenged Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, he argued that "abortion should be safe and legal in this country" and that he would "sustain and support ... the right of a woman to make that choice." When he ran for governor eight years later, he reiterated that he was personally opposed to abortion but said he would not alter Massachusetts laws on abortion.
But as he contemplated a presidential run, he declared in a July 2005 Boston Globe op-ed that "abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother." Explaining his veto of a bill expanding access to emergency contraception, he said his "pro-life" views had "evolved and deepened" as he had studied embryonic stem cell research and cloning. He has maintained staunchly anti-abortion views in both presidential campaigns.
Recent statements by Romney on other subjects also have raised eyebrows. Shortly before Ohio voters this month defeated a ballot measure that would have limited collective bargaining rights for public employees, Romney said the initiative was "up to the people" -- backing off an earlier Facebook post in support of the measure. The following day he said he was "110 percent" in support of it and was sorry if he "created any confusion in that regard."
Within the same week, Perry and Democratic groups pounced on what they viewed as conflicting comments by Romney on the source of global warming. During a speech in Pittsburgh captured by the liberal blog Think Progress, he said, "We don't know what is causing climate change on this planet." More often on the campaign trail, Romney says he believes humans have contributed to the rise in temperatures -- always adding the caveat that he does not know how much.
Romney suggested in an interview with New Hampshire's Portsmouth Herald newspaper that his opponents were taking advantage of his word changes day to day. "I've been as consistent as human beings can be," Romney told the editorial board. "I cannot state every single issue in exactly the same words every single time."
But it matters to voters like Leonard Silvani, a 58-year-old Republican from Hampton, N.H. Even though he is most concerned about the economy, Silvani said, the shift by Romney on a core issue like abortion is a warning flag.
"It's telling you that what he's saying and what he does aren't necessarily the same thing," he said. "And that makes me leery."
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services