Seated across from him, she asserted her own support for abortion rights and challenged Mr. Romney’s. He smiled and calmly reassured voters, “I’ve been very clear on that. I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard.” He then affirmed his support for a parental notification law—also popular with the pro-choice suburbanites—and declared that his abortion views were indistinguishable from Ms. O’Brien’s.
Given a chance to respond, Ms. O’Brien catalogued Mr. Romney’s previous contortions on the issue and recycled Ted Kennedy’s 1994 assertion that, on abortion, Mr. Romney is not pro-choice or anti-choice, but rather multiple-choice.
In the same steady voice, Mr. Romney then fired back by invoking his mother and what he called her “courageous” pro-choice stance when she’d run for the Senate in Michigan in the pre-Roe era.
“I’m in favor of preserving and protecting a woman’s right to choose,” he once again asserted. “And your effort to continue to try and create fear and deception here is unbecoming. It’s an issue that’s important. I’ve established my position very clearly.”
The exchange proved devastating to Ms. O’Brien. For swing voters, Mr. Romney had said all of the magic words and had said them in a way that sounded thoughtful and sincere. And that he’d tied his conviction to his mother only made his pleadings more believable. Meanwhile, Ms. O’Brien had offered viewers at home only a confusing chronology of Mr. Romney’s abortion stands—his letter to the editor in Utah was an abstract concept to them—and, while he was speaking, a facial expression that almost looked simpering. When he called her “unbecoming,” it registered with more than a few viewers.
“He was trying to make me look unattractive and, frankly, bitchy,” Ms. O’Brien recalled. “And the fact that I kept insisting that he wasn’t telling the truth, it was almost like, ‘Oh, you’re being rude.’ I mean, I look at myself now on YouTube—I know in my mind I’m going, ‘This guy is just lying through his teeth.’
“My face betrayed this huge smirk, like, ‘You are just so not telling the truth.’ And he took that into a she’s-really-not-very-nice issue. You know, she’s not very becoming. She’s unbecoming. She’s rude. She keeps saying that, and she’s scaring people. I was perceived as being too aggressive and too nasty with him.”
Some feminists griped about Mr. Romney’s use of the word “unbecoming,” but he’d scored his victory. He didn’t win solely because of abortion. Ms. O’Brien’s close relationships with several icons of the state’s Democratic machinery made her supremely vulnerable to Mr. Romney’s charge that she was the tainted insider in the race. But the voters with whom that message resonated, suburban independents who support Democrats at the presidential level, only flocked to Mr. Romney after he satisfied them that he was not the kind of moral crusader they identified with the national G.O.P.
On Election Day 2002, Mr. Romney received 49 percent of the vote, while Ms. O’Brien scored just under 45 percent. But less than two years after taking office, Mr. Romney all but abandoned the governorship, swearing off most of what he’d said in 2002 and hitting the national G.O.P. circuit in pursuit of the 2008 nomination. In the summer of 2005, after an awkward six-month dance, he formally announced that he was pro-life.
Ms. O’Brien, who spent two years as an investigative reporter for a Boston television station after the campaign, says she hears from people “all the time” who express regret for supporting Mr. Romney over her. The man they see running around the country bears little resemblance to the one who courted them so earnestly just five years ago.