Romney’s political shifts stir criticism

? When he was running for Massachusetts governor in 2002, Mitt Romney’s campaign courted voters at a Boston Gay Pride weekend by handing out fliers proclaiming “All citizens deserve equal rights, regardless of sexual preference.”

Just a year later, Romney emerged as a leading voice against gay marriage, opposing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling overturning the ban on same-sex marriage.

With Romney’s positions evolving on everything from abortion to gay rights, embryonic stem cell research to health care, the Republican presidential candidate has faced charges of political opportunism from Republicans and Democrats alike.

In a Web video last month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry highlighted Romney’s shifts on health care and illegal immigration and reminded voters, “You cannot lead a nation by misleading the people.”

Obama’s senior strategist, David Axelrod, posed this question to reporters in a conference call last month: “If you are willing to change positions on fundamental issues of principle, how can we know what you will do as president?”

Romney’s answer from last Wednesday’s debate: “I think people understand that I’m a man of steadiness and constancy.”

To counter the criticism, he said he’s been married to the same woman for four decades, has been a member of the same church his entire life and worked at one company for 25 years.

Romney, who is leading opinion polls in the GOP race, hopes that the argument will help him get beyond what dogged his 2008 campaign.

This time, the electorate’s focus on the troubled economy may overshadow Romney’s shifts. The former venture capitalist and Harvard Business School alumnus is counting on it as he plays up his business experience.

“With the economy being the absolutely overriding issue, even in the GOP primaries where the social conservatives are typically in control, maybe he’s finally found an election cycle that plays to his sweet spot,” said Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz. “The planets are all lining up.”

Still, Perry and Romney’s other rivals portray him as a political chameleon .

Romney’s history offers plenty of fodder, beginning with his gradual about-face on abortion.

During his first foray into politics, a failed 1994 campaign against incumbent Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, Romney said that while he was personally opposed to abortion, he believed the procedure “should be safe and legal.”

Romney said his personal beliefs had no place in the race and his commitment to legal abortion stemmed from the death of a close relative during an illegal procedure.

Eight years later, as he was running for governor, Romney again pledged he would do nothing to change abortion rights laws in Massachusetts.

Then in 2005, after vetoing a bill that would have given rape victims access to emergency contraception at hospitals or through their pharmacists — a veto he said honored his pledge not to change the state’s abortion editorial that he supports a reversal of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, “because it is bad law and bad medicine.”

Melissa Kogut, the former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, remembers meeting with Romney while he was still a candidate for governor. During the meeting, Kogut said Romney argued he could be a more moderate Republican voice on abortion.

“They know that this is killing them,” Kogut recalls Romney saying of the political implications.

Kogut said she was surprised by Romney’s shift.

“This is a man who had run for office before,” Kogut said. “Clearly he had thought about it. It was a surprise to see him change so dramatically when he decided to run for president.”