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Mitt Romney embarking on new political balancing act

By Steve Peoples

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 5 2012 7:30 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this May 1, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in New York. Romney says he wanted an openly gay spokesman who resigned from the campaign to stay on.

Henny Ray Abrams, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney will need independent voters in November, but he isn't abandoning his "severely conservative" record.

The likely Republican presidential nominee has embarked on an aggressive campaign against President Barack Obama that straddles two sometimes-conflicting political ideologies.

On some days, the former Massachusetts governor is a social conservative and social moderate, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and promoter of political compromise. With the primaries over, it's an evolving balancing act that, so far, is leaning decidedly right.

Romney spoke out Friday against China's "one-child policy," in an apparent nod to social conservatives. But later in the same Fox News interview, he defended his decision to hire an openly gay staffer who just quit under pressure from social conservatives.

Romney said he hires people "not based upon their ethnicity, or their sexual preference or their gender but upon their capability." He said the ex-aide, Richard Grenell, who was to become foreign policy spokesman, was a "capable individual" and that many senior campaign advisers had urged him not to leave. But Grenell's departure pleased some on the religious right.

The matter offered a look inside a Romney campaign that would like to broaden his appeal to the political center, while harnessing the anti-Obama intensity from his party's right. It's a tricky move, but Romney is trying to prove he won't turn his back on his party's most passionate voters.

He's devoting significant attention to skeptical conservatives who have supported his Republican rivals until recently. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gave up his bid last month, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made his departure official this past week.

"We're moving quickly," said Romney senior aide Peter Flaherty, who is leading the campaign's conservative outreach. "We are going to work very hard to continue to work with conservatives, to work with the base, to keep them energized."

Romney on Friday met with Santorum, who has indicated he will endorse Romney. Since Santorum quit, Romney's campaign has been recruiting former Santorum staffers and courting his key allies and donors. Romney has hired Santorum's former campaign manager to broaden coalitions with conservative groups.

At the same time, the Romney campaign is paying lots of attention to the conservative media.

He and his wife met this past week with right-leaning bloggers, reporters and columnists for an off-the-record discussion on Capitol Hill. He has granted interviews recently to conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard, the blog "Hot Air," National Review and Human Events magazine.

Romney last month told the website Breitbart TV that the media was involved in a "vast left-wing conspiracy to work together to put out their message and to attack me."

Romney will deliver a commencement address next week at Liberty University, the evangelical institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va. He will be the first Mormon to speak at a Liberty graduation.

All that attention could alienate independents and more moderate voters often credited with deciding close elections.

For now, the Romney campaign seems more focused on uniting a party that just experienced a bitter primary. His aides highlight the need to rev up conservative activists, who will drive turnout on Election Day and handle the lion's share of the less-glamorous tasks needed to run a national campaign.

They note that Democrats have a ready-made army of volunteers, relying on college students, labor union members and others.

Romney has struggled for much of his primary campaign to excite most conservative voters. Aiming at that group, he described himself as a "severely conservative" Republican governor while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in February.

Some conservative leaders said they're still not excited about Romney.

"The attitude of the leadership of the Republican Party is to primarily ignore the evangelical vote and just presume they don't have any other place to go," said John Grant, a Tampa, Fla.-based Republican operative who served as Gingrich's state evangelical co-chairman. "There's one place. It's called home."

Grant said he's yet to hear from the Romney campaign, but he'd be willing to join in the effort to defeat Obama. He offered Romney a bit of unsolicited advice: "Stand up and energize those who can make a difference."

Flaherty said that conservative outreach had yet to reach the state levels, where Obama's team has worked with activists for months. That's all part of the campaign's next stage, he said.

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