WASHINGTON (AP) ― Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama’s presumed Republican challenger in this year’s election, apologized Thursday for “stupid” high school pranks and moved quickly to stamp out any notion that he bullied schoolmates because they were gay.
Romney’s swift response reflected the candidate’s recognition that his record on gay rights is under heightened scrutiny after Obama on Wednesday became the first president in history to support gay marriage.
Obama made his historic endorsement on the eve of a sold-out fundraiser Thursday evening at the Los Angeles home of actor George Clooney. Hollywood is home to some of the most high-profile backers of gay marriage. The 150 donors who are paying $40,000 to attend Clooney’s dinner will no doubt feel newly invigorated by Obama’s announcement the day before.
A former-governor of liberal-leaning Massachusetts state, Romney has had to walk a fine line in order to convince an increasingly partisan Republican party that he is sufficiently conservative to win the primaries without isolating the more moderate voters he would need to win the general election.
The sudden focus on gay rights is an unwelcome distraction for a candidate who has pinned his hopes on the faltering economy, arguing that as a former-business executive he is best suited to get the U.S. back on the track of steady growth.
But the issue of gay rights took center stage Thursday following a Washington Post report about Romney’s high school escapades nearly 50 years ago.
The newspaper reported that in one case, Romney and several schoolmates held down classmate John Lauber and cut off his bleached blond hair after seeking him out in his dorm room at their prestigious boarding school. The Post said Lauber was “perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality” and that he screamed for help as Romney held him down.
The paper recounted another incident in which Romney shouted “atta girl” to a different student at the all-boys’ school who, years later, came out as gay.
“I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some may have gone too far. And for that I apologize,” Romney told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade during a hastily arranged radio interview. Romney said he didn’t remember the Lauber incident from long ago, but didn’t dispute that it happened. He stressed that he didn’t know either student was gay.
The Republican presidential candidate had begun the day by treading softly on Obama’s historic embrace of same-sex marriage, which seems likely to fire up liberal and conservative activists alike. He quietly restated his opposition to legalizing such marriages, but his campaign turned its full attention to energy, the economy and other issues.
Then the boarding school story was posted online and Romney moved quickly to counter any suggestion he had targeted students because they gay.
“If there was anything I said that was offensive to someone, I certainly am sorry about that,” he said, adding that “there was no harm intended.” Romney’s campaign has previously highlighted the candidate’s reputation as a high school prankster in an attempt to humanize him.
In a second interview Thursday, Romney laid out what he said what his long-held position on gay rights: While opposed to gay marriage, he said states should be allowed to grant various domestic partnership rights to same-sex couples, including the right to adopt children.
The Republican candidate has a complicated record on gay rights, defending some when he ran for governor of Massachusetts but then becoming a leading voice against gay marriage when courts made it legal in the state.
When Romney ran for Senate in 1994, he argued that he would be a better advocate for gay rights’ issues than Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy because he would make gay issues mainstream. “I think the gay community needs more support from the Republican Party and I would be a voice in the Republican Party to foster anti-discrimination efforts,” he said in a 1994 interview.
Meanwhile, Clooney’s dinner for Obama is expected to net close to $15 million. That’s an unprecedented amount for a single event. And it means that in one single evening the Obama camp and the Democratic Party will collect more than Romney has amassed in his best single month of fundraising.
Obama also held fundraisers earlier Thursday in Seattle, where he was expected to collect at least $3 million toward his re-election effort. On Friday, he will fly to Nevada, a highly contested state, where he will call for housing relief in a speech in Reno.