Republican Mitt Romney is trying to return the focus of his campaign to the sluggish economic recovery and his vision for America after spending a day restating his opposition to gay marriage and shrugging off a report that he had bullied a gay classmate in prep school.
His schedule isn't making it easier.
On Friday, Romney is set to discuss jobs and the economy in North Carolina, the state that just approved a constitutional ban on same-sex unions that helped turn attention to gay rights. Also likely to raise cultural rather than economic issues is Romney's commencement address Saturday at Liberty University, the Virginia institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and the nation's largest evangelical university.
"This is a time when we can follow this president down a road of decline and weakness or we can take a course that is based on a positive dynamic and a bold vision for this country," he said.
Earlier, during a fundraiser and a public appearance in Omaha, Neb., he hammered his vision for economic greatness, telling supporters, "This could be the beginning of an extraordinary century for America."
Obama's unexpected embrace of gay marriage continued to overwhelm the presidential campaign on Thursday as liberals and conservatives debated the political merits of his endorsement of an issue over which a president has little practical impact.
For Romney, the discussion of gay rights turned personal when The Washington Post published a story recounting how he 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 boarding school in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
The Post said Lauber was "perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality" and that he screamed for help as Romney held him down and forcibly hacked off his hair. 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.
At no point on Thursday did Romney volunteer comments about the report, nor did he wade into Obama's views on gay rights. But he did apologize for what he characterized as tomfoolery when asked by reporters.
"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 during a hastily arranged radio interview.
Romney said he didn't remember the Lauber incident, but he didn't dispute that it happened. He stressed that he didn't know either student was homosexual and moved quickly to counter any suggestion he had targeted students because they were gay.
"That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case," he said, adding that the students involved "didn't come out of the closet until years later."
In a second interview Thursday, Romney laid out what he said was 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.
"States could have their own decisions with regards to the domestic partnership rights," Romney told Fox News in the network's second interview that day with the candidate. "But my preference would be to have a national standard for marriage and that marriage would be defined as being between a man and a woman."
He said he would go as far as supporting gay couples who want to adopt children, saying: "If two people of the same gender want to live together, want to have a loving relationship and even want to adopt a child — in my state, individuals of the same sex are able to adopt children — in my view, that's something which people have the right to do."
The renewed attention on gay rights came as Obama thrust the issue into the forefront. He became the first president to give a full-throated support for gay couples to wed and shifted the campaign to social issues, where Romney faces skepticism among his own party's base.
Romney's advisers signaled they planned to campaign on the issue in November's election but acknowledged they would have to tread carefully. "I think it's important to be respectful in how we talk about our differences, but the fact is that's a significant difference in November," Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, said Thursday on MSNBC.