LAKE GENEVA, Wis. – Expanding on his reason for saying at a debate that an employer should be allowed to fire someone for being gay, Tommy Thompson on Saturday blamed a dead hearing aid and his need to use the bathroom.
Thompson, speaking to reporters after giving an address at the state GOP convention, also said he was suffering from the flu and bronchitis and had been admitted to a hospital emergency room three days prior to the May 3 debate.
"Nobody knows that," Thompson said. "I've been very sick. ... I was very sick the day of the debate. I had all of the problems with the flu and bronchitis that you have, including running to the bathroom. I was just hanging on. I could not wait until the debate got off so I could go to the bathroom."
Thompson said he thought he was being asked if there were enough laws already to address discrimination in the workplace. The question at the debate was, "If a private employer finds homosexuality immoral, should he be allowed to fire a gay worker?"
Thompson replied: "I think that is left up to the individual business. I really sincerely believe that that is an issue that business people have got to make their own determination as to whether or not they should be."
Thompson has lost hearing in one ear and said his hearing aid battery for the other ear had gone dead.
"I didn't hear the question. All I was thinking about was getting off the stage," Thompson said Saturday. "I said it, I'm sorry, and it won't happen again but it's not my record. ... There's nothing discriminatory about me at all."
That gaffe, as well as one in April when he told a Jewish group that earning money is "part of the Jewish tradition," have been a distraction for Thompson's campaign. But he told party faithful at the convention Saturday that he can still win.
"I know a couple of you don't think I can win," Thompson said. "Some of you believe that maybe I shouldn't run."
Thompson said people also thought he shouldn't run for the state Assembly or for governor, but he did and won. He told reporters that he has the support necessary in Iowa to win the Aug. 11 straw poll and the caucus.
But others aren't so sure.
"How many times is he going to say something that's completely offensive to the majority of Americans before people start to say, 'What's going on here?"' said Jason Stephany, political director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
Thompson and the field of Republican candidates is lackluster, Stephany said. Even Republicans in polls have said they are dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates, he said.
Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Thompson's gaffes may not have resonated much with the general public, many of whom don't even know Thompson is running, but they did hurt him with power brokers.
Thompson raised just under $400,000 in the first quarter of the year, putting him far behind leading candidates such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who raised $23 million and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani with $15 million.
Thompson's strategy has been to win Iowa and use the momentum and attention from that victory to attract more money and propel him to victory in other states.
Thompson said at the convention that he's been in Iowa every week since early December, courting support in advance of the straw poll.
Thompson, 65, served as Wisconsin governor from 1987 to 2001 and was head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2001 until 2005. He established his presidential exploratory committee in December.
Thompson has been campaigning heavily on health care reform, which was a hallmark of his record as governor, and his plan for Iraq. Thompson said he wants to rebuild the military and increase it by 100,000 troops and ensure that those in the National Guard and reserves have to spend no more than one year on a mission.
Thompson's speech at the convention Saturday followed an address Friday night by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, another candidate polls show is lagging in the race for the Republican nomination.
Giuliani, Sen. John McCain and Romney are generally considered the Republican front-runners.