WASHINGTON (AP) — He will need independents in November, but Mitt Romney isn't abandoning his "severely conservative" record.
Instead, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has launched an aggressive campaign against President Barack Obama that straddles two sometimes-conflicting political ideologies. On some days, he is both a social conservative and social moderate, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and promoter of political compromise. It's a delicate balancing act in a general election effort that's just weeks old but one that's leaning decidedly right so far.
Romney spoke out against China's "one-child policy" on Friday in an apparent nod to social conservatives on Fox News. But later in the same interview, he defended his decision to hire an openly gay staffer who ultimately 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 called the staffer, Richard Grenell, who had yet to formally begin his role as a foreign policy spokesman, a "capable individual" and said many senior campaign aides had urged him not to leave. But Grenell's departure pleased some on the religious right who had been critical of his hiring.
The incident 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 flank. It's a tricky move, with pitfalls lurking on both sides. But Romney so far 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 very recently. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gave up his bid last month, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made his departure official this week.
"It's only been a short time since Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich suspended their campaigns, and 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 met privately Friday with Santorum, who has indicated he will ultimately endorse Romney but has yet to formally do so. Since the day Santorum left the race, Romney's campaign has been recruiting former Santorum staffers and courting his key allies, including his donors. Romney has hired Santorum's former campaign manager to broaden coalitions with conservative groups.
At the same time, the Romney campaign is showering attention on the conservative media.
He and his wife met privately this week with scores of 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."
Further, Romney will deliver a commencement address next week at Liberty University, the evangelical institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va. Roughly 48,000 people — most of them cultural conservatives — are expected to attend. He becomes the first Mormon to speak at a Liberty graduation.
Such attention, of course, could alienate independents and more moderate voters often credited with deciding close elections.
But for now, the Romney campaign seems more focused on uniting a Republican Party that spent the last year trudging through a bitter primary. His aides highlight the need to energize conservative activists, who will drive turnout on Election Day and ultimately 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 to handle tasks like door-knocking and phone-banking with their support from college students and labor union members. Republicans typically need to rely on party activists to handle such footwork.
The former Massachusetts governor 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-chair. "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 been working with Democratic activists for months. That's all part of the campaign's next stage, he said, "which is to reach out to state leaders and not just conservatives, but all coalitions, and getting about the business of putting together grass-roots organizations in states, counties, cities, precincts and neighborhoods."
In the meantime, the campaign expects to continue courting conservatives, both publicly and privately.
"You see in our party a great deal of enthusiasm about making sure we get America back on track," Romney said on Fox News on Friday. "I expect that you're going to see us all come together."
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