WASHINGTON – Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Wednesday he opposed Senate Republicans' effort that critics say would limit insurance coverage of birth control, then reversed himself quickly in a second interview saying he misunderstood the question.
Romney told Ohio News Network during an interview that he opposed a measure by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that was scheduled for a vote Thursday. "I'm not for the bill," Romney said before urging the interviewer to move on.
Romney later said he didn't understand the question.
"Of course I support the Blunt amendment. I thought he was talking about some state law that prevented people from getting contraception so I was simply — misunderstood the question and of course I support the Blunt amendment," Romney later told Howie Carr's radio program in Boston, noting that Blunt is his campaign's point man in the Senate.
Just hours earlier, ONN reporter Jim Heath asked Romney about rival Rick Santorum and the cultural debate happening in the campaign and the legislation proposed by Blunt and co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
"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?" Heath said. "He (Santorum) said he was for that. We'll talk about personhood in a second, but he's for that. Have you taken a position?"
Romney replied: "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 woman, husband and wife, I'm not going there."
The Blunt-sponsored legislation would allow employers and insurers to opt out of provisions in President Barack Obama's health care law on moral or religious grounds, including its requirement to provide birth control for free. Blunt and other Republicans said the provision in Obama's health care law violates the First Amendment's freedom of religion because it forces free birth control on insurers for some religiously affiliated institutions.
In some states conservatives have also pushed for "personhood" measures that would give rights to embryos and are part of their effort to roll back abortion rights.
Conservatives were quick to note that Romney's initial statement could prove a liability for him the day after he claimed victory in primaries in Michigan and Arizona. More than a dozen conservative leaders released statements in support of the amendment.
"Not too much blurry when talking about Blunt," GOP consultant Greg Mueller said.
"We all know Romney's liberal record on this, so when he's asked a question about a bill that would protect our religious freedom — and Romney's gut reaction is to say he'd oppose it — we shouldn't be the least bit surprised," said a spokesman for Santorum, Hogan Gidley.
President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, too, was quick to exploit Romney's comments.
"In one hour, Mitt Romney showed why women don't trust him for one minute. It took little more than an hour for him to commit his latest flip-flop. Even worse, he ended up on the wrong side of an issue of critical importance to women," Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said.
"The Blunt amendment would allow any employer to deny their female employees coverage because of that employer's own beliefs," Cutter said. "With his support of this amendment, Mitt Romney is taking important health care decisions about contraception, mammograms and cervical cancer screenings among other issues out of women's hands and into the hands of their bosses."
The leader of a conservative group also criticized Romney. "Mitt Romney's inability to answer a reporter's question about Sen. Blunt's Respect for Rights of Conscience Act is a major blunder and will not go unnoticed by conservatives," said L. Brent Bozell, chairman of the 2 million-member ForAmerica.
Bozell later lightened his criticism after hearing Romney's explanation: "How he misunderstood such a simple question is perplexing, but what is important is Gov. Romney's solemn commitment. We'll take it."
Democrats vowed to block the measure.
"Instead of doing the hard work we need to get more Americans back to work, they're going to try and try again to deny millions of women access to critical preventive health care just to score political points with their extremist base," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.