WASHINGTON » After years of trying to tamp down concerns about his stance on social issues and his Mormon faith, Mitt Romney is now being forced to fend off revived questions from rivals and evangelical leaders about the consistency and depth of his conservatism.
Romney has tried at every stage of the race for the Republican presidential nomination to focus on the economy, and he did so again Saturday, when he appeared here at the Values Voter Summit, a gathering of social conservative activists.
But he also felt compelled to reiterate that he was in sync with social conservatives as he ran through his positions on abortion, marriage, judicial appointments and religious values. And as other speakers condemned homosexuality and raised questions about whether a Mormon is a true Christian, Romney emphasized that tolerance and civility were conservative values.
"The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us," he said. "Let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart."
The questions he faces about his rightward shift over the years on the topics of most concern to social conservatives have become entangled in Romney’s broader challenge: establishing himself as authentic and principled, and battling the perception that he has reshaped himself for the politics of the moment.
With Romney having regained the perceived status of front-runner, his opponents have signaled that they will go after him hard from the right, questioning his conservative credentials and trying to force him off his economic message. He now has to parry those intensifying attacks without giving up the opportunity to win over independent voters should he become his party’s nominee and face President Barack Obama next year.
Romney’s address Saturday got a positive reception from many in the audience.
"Now the foundation needed for a strong economy and a strong military is a people of strong values," Romney said, going on to promise that he would eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood and appoint judges who would vote to roll back Roe v. Wade.
In his 2008 race, Romney and his team reached out regularly to social conservatives. He once even sent evangelical leaders expensive wooden chairs with brass plaques promising a seat at "our table."
Advisers said the campaign’s approach in 2012 was based on a belief that conservative voters and religious leaders know far more about Romney’s views than they did four years ago. They noted that Romney had attended the Values Voter Summit every year. They said that there were no plans for him to give another speech about his Mormon faith but that he would continue to address social issues as they were raised.
Romney is also determined to keep his focus on the economic struggles of voters, believing that is Obama’s biggest vulnerability. Some social conservative leaders say evangelical voters will mobilize behind any Republican nominee, including Romney, just because they are so united in their desire to defeat Obama. Still, Romney clearly has not quelled all the doubts about him among social conservatives because of his positions both on social issues and the health care legislation he signed as governor of Massachusetts, which has many similarities to the national legislation signed by Obama.
"He did a good job and hit all the issues," Mathew D. Staver, the dean of the Liberty University School of Law, said after Romney’s speech Saturday. "It did not change my opinion, however. He needs to renounce RomneyCare and not defend it or distinguish it from ObamaCare."
Richard Land, the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said before the speech that evangelicals felt "some reluctance" about Romney. They wonder "how strongly he feels about their issues."
But Land added that "most evangelicals and social conservatives don’t think the country can survive four more years of Barack Obama."
Ralph Reed, the director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Romney’s strategy might work to his advantage.
"My sense is that his strategy this time is not to genuflect or pander," Reed said. "Romney has retooled to some extent and is running as someone who knows how to turn around the economy and create jobs. That’s not necessarily a mistake."