A social policy debate has dogged Mitt Romney’s US presidential campaign message, but he caused his own distraction on Friday when he dredged up the conspiracy over US President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
Romney had aimed to roll into the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida next week touting his business credentials, pushing party unity and convincing voters he was more capable of turning the economy around than the current president.
He is also set to carry with him new national poll data from CNN/ORC International that shows him just behind Obama 49-47 percent among likely voters, a statistical tie as it is within the margin of error.
He was sideswiped by a debate on rape and abortion this week after conservative Representative Todd Akin said a woman’s body could prevent pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape.”
Romney led Republican calls for Akin to bow out of his Senate race, but the Missouri congressman’s refusal has left party leaders fighting perceptions of weakness and internal division over issues like abortion.
On Thursday, the Republican White House hopeful returned to his economic plan by unveiling an energy platform aiming to boost US oil and gas production, but his latest birth certificate quip again muddled the message.
Speaking in Michigan about his and his wife’s roots in the state, Romney told a crowd: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”
Many in the audience of about 10,000 cheered, but it was an awkward link to a long-standing conspiracy fueled by right-wing conservatives who question whether Obama was born in the US.
Afterward, Romney told CBS News the remark was “not a swipe” at Obama, but “a little humor in a campaign” as he and Ann Romney entertained a hometown crowd.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus dismissed the off-the-cuff remarks as a “nothing issue.”
However, the conspiracy has refused to die, despite Obama releasing his “long-form” birth certificate last year showing he was born on Aug. 4, 1961, at a Honolulu hospital.
The Obama camp insisted that Romney’s remark showed the former Massachusetts governor was embracing “the most strident voices in his party.”
“Governor Romney’s decision to directly enlist himself in the birther movement should give pause to any rational voter across America,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said.
In the run-up to Tampa, Romney has sought to hammer Obama’s economic record, which the multimillionaire private equity investor has stressed is the pivotal factor in November’s election.
However, the week has seen several hiccups, including on Thursday night at a Minnesota fundraiser.
Romney told donors he would “champion small business,” but then said: “big business is doing fine in many places.”
The comment recalled Obama’s June remark that “the private sector is doing fine,” a line mercilessly mocked by Romney as a sign the president was out of touch.
Romney, who as head of private equity firm Bain Capital amassed a fortune estimated at US$250 million, also inadvertently highlighted his own secretive offshore investments in havens like the Cayman Islands.
“They get the loans they need, they can deal with all the regulation,” he said at the fundraiser.
“They know how to find ways to get through the tax code, save money by putting various things in the places where there are low tax havens around the world for their businesses, but small business is getting crushed,” Romney said.
Romney’s tax rate has been a bone of contention. Romney says he has paid an annual tax rate of at least 13 percent for each of the last 10 years, a rate lower than that paid by millions of middle-class US workers.
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