As Mitt Romney has moved to the center in an effort to overtake President Barack Obama in the campaign's homestretch, he has by necessity muted—or even muddied—his previous opposition to abortion rights, a shift that has left some abortion foes aghast.
But veteran pro-life leaders say they are confident that Romney remains committed to their agenda and, in the final weeks before the Nov. 6 vote, they are busy trying to keep rank-and-file activists from pouncing on the Republican candidate's ambiguous statements. Their fear? That going after Romney could prompt defections and cost the GOP a surprisingly strong shot at winning the White House.
"If it's hurting him to bring up the abortion issue, then I'm okay if he doesn't," said Bradley Mattis, head of the Life Issues Institute in Cincinnati.
"I think our movement has to be savvy enough to understand how political campaigns are run," he said. "And if they don't, now would be a good time to have that revelation."
Several other pro-life leaders echoed Mattis, saying that abortion opponents around the country have been coordinating their strategy to reflect political realism. Romney, they say, is the best they will get, and he's not really so bad, especially given the alternative.
"We don't necessarily need in public office someone who is going to be a crusader on this issue. We just need someone who's going to make it easier for us to do our job," said the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life.
"We understand why a candidate wouldn't make this their leading issue," Pavone said, adding that he was comfortable with Romney's positions. "I've found that the more I really try to sincerely understand how politics and government work, the more I'm okay with what might be seen as reason for criticism or concern. It's just the nature of the way it works."
Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the Susan B. Anthony List, said she gets "outrageous" emails every day saying "it is your obligation to expose Romney's weaknesses."
But she rejects those demands as "off-the-charts unwise," telling her followers that they need a healthy dose of political pragmatism. Romney isn't perfect, she said, but Obama is far worse, and abortion opponents "have the power to make Romney follow through on his commitments"—if he is elected.
"Politics isn't a science; it is not the art of the perfect," she said. "It's a tool."
If pro-life groups can in fact preach that message of political realism, it could prove crucial for Romney, who has long struggled to present a clear position on abortion and reproductive rights.
As governor of Massachusetts a decade ago, Romney strongly supported abortion rights and said he was "effectively pro-choice." The health care plan he shepherded into law, which was a model for Obama's 2010 national reform, even included taxpayer funding for abortions.
In 2005, as Romney began his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, he announced that he had changed his views and was now pro-life.
But many abortion opponents were never fully convinced of Romney's conversion, and they blasted Romney throughout the GOP primaries as being insincere. He responded by pledging to work to overturn Roe v. Wade, defund Planned Parenthood, and to take other related steps.