, who has touted his support of gun owners since launching his presidential campaign, yesterday acknowledged he did not become a member of the National Rifle Association until last August, campaign officials said.
A former advocate of gun control, Romney during his 1994 run for the US Senate backed measures the gun-rights group opposed, such as a five-day waiting period on gun sales and a ban on certain assault weapons.
The former Massachusetts governor has been criticized for changing his positions to appeal to social conservatives voting in Republican primaries. In a nationally broadcast interview yesterday, he also had to explain his switch to a conservative stance on abortion and why he once voted for Democrats in Massachusetts primaries.
Spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney did not join the NRA just to court gun owners, who are considered a force in Republican primary politics.
"He joined the NRA because, like millions of Americans, he supports the group's advocacy of the Second Amendment and its commitment to education programs promoting the safe use of firearms by law-abiding gun owners," Madden said.
Asked why Romney joined only a few months before declaring his candidacy, Madden said: "I would argue not many Americans care when you join, but why you join, and I think I've made that clear."
Speaking on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Romney said he signed up for a life long membership "within the last year."
"I think they're doing good things, and I believe in supporting the right to bear arms," Romney said.
Not all gun advocates are convinced of Romney's commitment to their cause.
"His past votes have been anti-gun and I feel like it may just be a campaign strategy that we're not going to fall for," said Gerald Stoudemire, president of Gun Owners of South Carolina, an NRA state association. "I've never seen a politician change their way of thinking 180 degrees, except when they were running for office."
In the interview, Romney also explained why he was a registered independent in the early 1990s and voted for former senator Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary. He said it was a tactical maneuver, his effort to get the weakest Democratic nominee.
"In Massachusetts, if you register as an independent, you can vote on either the Republican or Democratic primary," Romney said. "When there was no real contest in the Republican primary, I'd vote in the Democrat primary, vote for the person who I thought would be the weakest opponent for a Republican."
But in a 1994 Globe story, Romney said he voted for Tsongas because he was from Massachusetts and "because he favored his ideas over those of Bill Clinton," according to the story
In yesterday's interview on ABC, Romney added: "Let me tell you, in the general election I don't recall ever once voting for anyone other than a Republican. So, yeah, as an independent I'll go in and play in their primary. But I'm a Republican and have been through my life."
Romney's explanation that he voted for Tsongas because he would be a weaker opponent for George H.W. Bush struck Northeastern University political science professor William Mayer as odd. "It would have been a strange election to cross over," he said, noting it's rare for more than 4 percent of voters to "raid" an opposing party's primary. "Everyone had conceded it to Tsongas."
He added: "His explanation gets to his basic problem. He's always trying to figure out what's in his best political interest and is willing to cut and trim his behavior to what's in his short-term interests."
In the interview, in which Stephanopoulos questioned the governor's "conversions of convenience," Romney, a former supporter of abortion rights, refused to say which punishment he thought would be appropriate for women who have abortions. In recent months, Romney has campaigned strongly against abortion rights.
"Well, I'm not about punishment," Romney said. "That's not what I'm considering. I'm saying that, in my view, we should let the states make that decision, and I am in favor of life and in favor of choosing life."
With his wife, Ann, on ABC, Romney also said his faith as a Mormon would not hinder his ability to govern.
"I'm not running for pastor-in-chief; I'm running for commander-in-chief," Romney said.
Asked whether his Mormonism would alienate evangelical voters, Romney said: "I think we are, if you will, one family of humanity."
When asked how Muslims might view Mormon doctrine, which holds that Jesus will return to the United States and reign for 1,000 years, Romney said "that doesn't happen to be a doctrine of my church."
"Our belief is just as it says in the Bible, that the messiah will come to Jerusalem, stand on the Mount of Olives, and that the Mount of Olives will be the place for the great gathering and so forth," he said.
Michael Purdy, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Mormons believe Jesus will return to both the "old Jerusalem" and "new Jerusalem," which Mormons believe is somewhere in the state of Missouri.
"When Christ appears, we believe there will be people of many faiths on the Earth, and no one will be compelled to change their faith," Purdy said.