Mitt Romney was firm and direct with the abortion rights advocates sitting in his office nine years ago, assuring the group that if elected Massachusetts governor, he would protect the state’s abortion laws.

Then, as the meeting drew to a close, the businessman offered an intriguing suggestion — that he would rise to national prominence in the Republican Party as a victor in a liberal state and could use his influence to soften the GOP’s hard-line opposition to abortion…

“You need someone like me in Washington,” several participants recalled Romney saying that day in September 2002, an apparent reference to his future ambitions…

Melissa Kogut, the NARAL group’s executive director in 2002, recalled Wednesday that as she and other participants in the meeting began to pack their belongings to leave after the 45-minute session, Romney became “emphatic that the Republican Party was not doing themselves a service by being so vehemently anti-choice.”

The abortion rights supporters came away from the meeting pleasantly surprised. Romney declined to label himself “pro-choice” but said he eschewed all labels, including “pro-life.” He told the group that he would “protect and preserve a woman’s right to choose under Massachusetts law” and that he thought any move to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision would be a “serious mistake for our country.”