Mitt Romney caused a stir while campaigning in Ohio today when he said he opposes a Republican-backed plan to let employers opt out of providing health coverage for contraception -- and then quickly moved to stress his support for the measure.
The proposal, scheduled for a U.S. Senate vote tomorrow, would undo a health-care rule by President Barack Obama requiring insurers to cover contraception without charge for insured employees, even at religiously affiliated institutions. Conservatives have rallied around the proposed exemption, sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who backs Romney in the party’s presidential race.
“I’m not for the bill,” Romney said in a television interview taped this afternoon for Ohio News Network.
Keith Appell, a Republican strategist working with a coalition of groups pressing for passage of the Blunt measure, said Romney’s remarks would “infuriate” conservatives if it were his true position.
In a later radio interview, Romney said he “didn’t understand” the question, “and of course I support the Blunt amendment.”
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement the campaign quickly issued: “Regarding the Blunt bill, the way the question was asked was confusing. Governor Romney supports the Blunt bill because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith.”
Social issues such as insurance coverage for contraception have emerged in the Republican presidential race due in part to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who has used his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage to rally those who view Romney as insufficiently committed to such causes.
The television interview was taped for the Ohio News Network, which planned to air it later today. The interviewer, Jim Heath, wrote on Twitter late in the afternoon that Romney opposed Blunt’s measure, setting off immediate attacks from conservative bloggers.
After Saul’s statement was reported, David Axelrod, Obama’s top campaign strategist, said in a Twitter message, “For a few minutes, seemed Mitt had exercised some independence by opposing the dismaying Blunt bill. Now his team has walked it back.”
In the television interview, posted on the Ohio News Network’s website, Heath describes the Blunt amendment, co-sponsored by Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, as allowing employers to “ban” birth control.
Question to Romney
Referring to Santorum, Heath says: “He’s brought contraception into this campaign. The issue of birth control, contraception, Blunt-Rubio 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 responds: “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 didn’t inquire further about Romney’s answer.
In Romney’s later interview with conservative radio talk show host Howie Carr, Romney 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.”
Ohio offers the largest trove of delegates on Match 6 -- Super Tuesday -- when 11 contests are held in the Republican race. A Quinnipiac poll of likely voters in the Ohio primary taken Feb. 23-26 showed Santorum with a seven-percentage-point lead over Romney.