Mitt Romney’s high-stakes speech today at CPAC, the conservative summit in Washington, is getting attention for a single word. “I was a severely conservative Republican governor,” he told an audience whose ambivalence about his candidacy was no secret. Severely. The modifier was not in his prepared text, and plenty of commentators have noted that it was an odd word choice, and not only because Romney one decade ago was describing himself as “progressive” during his 2002 campaign for Massachusetts governor. Severely: it’s a harsh-sounding word, a word that seems like it’s trying too hard, that carries tonal echoes of someone declaring that he takes pleasure in firing people who provide services to him.

But again, no one should be surprised by Romney’s adverbial embellishment. As I argued at the time of the “firing” comment, Romney seems incapable of not gravitating toward whatever he perceives the magnet of his audience to be. The “firing” comment came when he was speaking to New Hampshire businessmen who he imagined would like that kind of tough talk; his comment a day earlier about his having feared getting a pink slip came before an audience in a working-class town; and, for CPAC, he cannot help but declare himself “severely conservative.” This is what David Brooks meant in his spot-on column today about Romney’s “other-directedness.”

What I found most striking about Romney’s speech, though, is the word that it did not include: contraception. A few hours earlier Friday, Rick Santorum's speech to the same audience included a lengthy attack on the Obama administration's requirement that Catholic hospitals, universities and charities cover birth control in their health plans. Santorum attacked not only this requirement but the whole notion of including contraceptives in health insurance in the first place:

[I]nterestingly enough, here is what they are forcing them to do—in an insurance policy, they are forcing them to pay for something that costs just a few dollars. Is that what insurance is for? The foundational idea that we have the government tells you that you have to pay for everything as a business. Things that are not really things you need insurance for, and still forcing on something that is not a critical economic need, when you have an economic distress, where you would need insurance. But forcing them even more to do it for minor expenses.

This is hardly surprising coming from Santorum, who is on the record decrying the mere use of contraception, insured or not. But this what Romney is now up against, as a result of his trifecta loss to Santorum in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. Somehow, in the weeks ahead, he will need to fight Santorum on social-issues territory that is the home turf of the former Pennsylvania senator, but do it in a way that does not turn off independent voters come November, particularly the women among them. For most of this week, Romney was able to do this simply by lambasting Obama’s birth control decree as an “attack on religious liberty.” But now that Obama has reached a partial accommodation with the Catholic institutions, Romney must decide how much further to press the fight. Others in his party are charging right on alongside Santorum—John Boehner says the House will take up legislation sponsored by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (a proud contraception abstainer)  that would eliminate the contraception coverage requirement for any employer at all. But presumably this is a fight the White House would love to have—it is no longer about the violated conscience of the leaders of Catholic institutions, but about the ability of women generally to have affordable access to birth control, which has been used by virtually all American women. Romney—whose wife once attended a Planned Parenthood fundraiser, and who himself joked at a debate in January that “contraception is working just fine”—surely knows that leading the anti-birth control crusade is not a winning path for a candidate who was planning on making his pivot to the center right about now.

So what did he do? While Santorum was able to milk conservative outrage, Romney in his speech made only a vague reference to the dispute: “I will reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life.” Part of his reluctance to elaborate, as I noted Wednesday, may be his personal discomfort in talking at length about “religious liberty” to an audience that may remain wary of his own religion. But above all it suggests that he knows he is in a bind. And Rubio, Boehner and Santorum—now charging ahead in the fight to deprive American women of affordable contraception—aren’t about to make things easier for him. Who was it, again, who declared the contraception issue an unmitigated political disaster for Obama? Oh, right—just about everyone.

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