Mitt Romney's scarlet letter?

scarlet letterDo you hear what I hear? Conservative evangelicals are migrating their presidential hopes from Massachusetts to Kansas because of a letter Mitt Romney wrote in 1994. Or are they? In its Dec. 9 story on Romney's flip-flopping on gay rights, The New York Times managed to slip in the biggest overstatement so far in 2008 presidential political reporting:

The doubts being raised could improve the prospects of two fellow Republicans who have been seeking conservative support in bids for the presidential election: Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas.

There's a massive "could" in that sentence that I hope has some decent sourcing behind it. But sadly it looks like it's the reporter's own personal speculation. Have any real Romney supporters left him for Huckabee or Brownback?

By hooking the news story to a 1994 letter from Romney to Log Cabin Republicans, the piece sums up what various blogs and talk radio hosts have been discussing now for weeks: Romney's position on gay rights now and in the past. It's clear that Romney's current beliefs are not what he believed 10-plus years ago. That's not the big news, though. It's the reaction to the news:

Nonetheless, the breadth of the letter's language and the specificity of many of the pledges stunned conservative leaders. Many of them had turned to Mr. Romney as a conservative alternative to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, whose position on issues like abortion had been considered suspect.

"This is quite disturbing," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who had praised Mr. Romney as a champion of traditional values at the group's conference in late September. "This type of information is going to create a lot of problems for Governor Romney. He is going to have a hard time overcoming this."

Paul Weyrich, a founder of the modern conservative movement, said: "Unless he comes out with an abject repudiation of this, I think it makes him out to be a hypocrite. And if he totally repudiates this, you have to ask, on what grounds?"

One question to ask folks like Perkins and Weyrich: How excited were you about Romney before this letter came out? And if Romney's position on gay rights had been more consistent, would you be more likely to support him? If this letter is supposed to reveal Romney's convictions, at least when he wrote it, one has to ask him and determine the source for those convictions. In other words, does his Mormon faith have anything to do with his current and past positions on gay rights?

Now everyone is talking about Brownback as the new standard bearer for the religious right. For an idea of how he measures up and where he came from, check out this excellent profile by The New Republic's Noam Scheiber.

One question about Romney yet to be answered: Why did he decide to shift from advocating for gay rights to his current stance? He must have believed that, as a Northeastern Republican, he needed the backing of the religious right to be successful, but why? And what happens to him if that support is removed or fractured to a greater degree than by his Mormon faith?

All this shifting and posturing raises the question of whether advocating gay rights is replacing advocating abortion rights as the new standard by which Republicans are measured by the likes of James Dobson, Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins. If Romney's nomination as the Republican candidate sinks over this issue, the Republican Party will be a very interesting group over the next six years.

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