Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, shifting his attention to Ohio after twin primary wins, was distracted from his economic message by confusion he created over his stance on a contraception issue.
In a television interview yesterday in the state that is a major prize in next week’s voting, Romney said he opposed a measure pushed by U.S. Senate Republicans to let employers opt out of providing health coverage for contraception. Conservatives have rallied around the proposed exemption to a health-care rule adopted by President Barack Obama, and Romney’s initial response prompted an outcry.
He and his campaign quickly stressed that Romney had misunderstood the question and supports the legislation, sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who backs him for his party’s nomination.
“Regarding the Blunt bill, the way the question was asked was confusing,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement. The candidate “supports the Blunt bill because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith,” she said.
The dust-up -- however brief -- reflected pervasive doubts many Republican rank-and-file voters have about Romney’s positions on social issues. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s long record of opposing abortion rights and gay marriage has helped him emerge as Romney’s main rival in the Republican race.
Keith Appell, a Republican strategist working with a coalition of groups pressing for passage today of the Blunt measure, said Romney’s remarks would “infuriate” conservatives if it were his true position.
Romney staved off a Santorum surge to score a three- percentage-point win in Michigan’s Feb. 28 primary, avoiding a politically embarrassing upset in the state where he was born and raised and his father served as governor. Romney also won Arizona’s primary the same day by 20 points. He turned to Ohio yesterday trying to build upon those triumphs.
The state, often a bellwether in the general election, is one of the 11 states holding contests in the Republican race on March 6, Super Tuesday.
Polls taken before Romney’s wins this week showed Santorum ahead in Ohio. The state borders Pennsylvania, which Santorum represented in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2007, and he may appeal to the types of voters exit polls showed were receptive to him in the Michigan race. Romney’s narrow win in Michigan also underscored the likelihood the Republican race will continue for weeks across several states.
Romney was backed by almost half of those voting in Michigan’s Republican primary who make more than $100,000 a year, according to the exit polling, while Santorum had the stronger showing among those with lower incomes -- carrying about 40 percent of those earning less than $50,000. In both Ohio and Michigan, the median household income is about $45,000, U.S. Census data show.
While Romney, 64, won the overall vote in Michigan, Santorum’s campaign predicted the two candidates would evenly split its 30 convention delegates, apportioned mainly by which man carried individual congressional districts. Neither Michigan’s secretary of state nor the state Republican Party had official results by district as of yesterday.
“If we can do this well in Romney’s home state, we clearly think this bodes well for Super Tuesday,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s chief strategist, on a conference call with reporters yesterday.
Winner Take All
Arizona’s primary was winner-take-all, meaning Romney garnered all of the state’s 29 delegates.
Santorum, 53, is trying to regain momentum by focusing on three Super Tuesday states -- Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee -- where large percentages of Republican voters are motivated by social issues such as opposition to abortion rights. His audience at Temple Baptist Church in Powell, Tennessee, included such voters.
“I believe that we should return to God and the Constitution in our land, and that government should be run by the people and for the people,” said Clay Varner, 18, a construction worker. “Rick Santorum has strong conservative values, and he has my vote.”
The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List yesterday said it will spend $200,000 on an ad campaign to support Santorum in Ohio while trying to mobilize voters in the state.
Struggling for Support
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, acknowledged earlier this week he has struggled with Republican voters most focused on social issues. The flap caused by his handling of yesterday’s contraception question, even if only a passing matter, is unlikely to help him.
He was asked about Blunt’s exemption proposal in a taping for Ohio News Network. Interviewer Jim Heath said the measure “is being debated, I believe, later this week. It deals with banning or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception. Have you taken a position on it?”
Romney responded: “I’m not for the bill, but look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife, I’m not going there.”
Heath wrote on Twitter about Romney’s answer, prompting immediate attacks from conservative bloggers and the statement from Romney’s campaign trying to quell the furor.
In a later interview Romney conducted with conservative radio talk show host Howie Carr, he said of Heath’s question: “I thought he was talking about some state law that prevented people from getting contraception.”
He continued: “I simply misunderstood the question.”
Romney has said he believes the economy will ultimately be the campaign top issue, a message that may resonate in Ohio, which has lost about 9 percent of its manufacturing jobs in three years.
In a stop yesterday in Toledo, Ohio, before the television interview, he pledged to revive U.S. manufacturing jobs and take on China.
“I want to go to work for the American worker,” Romney said at a steel plant. “I want to make sure that we see good jobs again, rising incomes again.”
“I want to bring jobs back here,” Romney said in Toledo. “I’m going to insist that China plays by the same rules everybody else in the world plays by and if they do we’ll win jobs back.”
Romney has said he would label China a currency manipulator, arguing that it keeps the value of the yuan artificially low to encourage Chinese exports.
He spoke at a warehouse of American Posts LLC, a family- owned company that claims to be the last American manufacturer of steel fence posts used by consumers and the military.
“I got to press the button. That will be my heavy lift in terms of manufacturing today,” he joked with workers as he toured the plant.
More than 400 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination will be at stake on Super Tuesday. U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia are also in the hunt for support after largely forgoing the Michigan and Arizona contests.
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