Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama’s presumed Republican election challenger, has apologised for “stupid” high school pranks and moved quickly to stamp out any notion that he bullied schoolmates because they were gay.
Mr Romney’s swift response reflected the candidate’s recognition that his record on gay rights is under heightened scrutiny after Mr Obama became the first president in history to support gay marriage.
Mr Obama made his historic endorsement on the eve of a sold-out fund-raiser at the Los Angeles home of actor George Clooney. Hollywood is home to some of the most high-profile backers of gay marriage.
The issue of gay rights took centre stage yesterday, following a Washington Post report about Mr Romney’s high school escapades nearly 50 years ago.
The newspaper said that in one case, Mr Romney and several schoolmates held down classmate John Lauber and cut off his bleached blond hair after seeking him out in his dormitory room at their prestigious boarding school.
The Post said Mr Lauber was “perpetually teased for his non-conformity and presumed homosexuality” and that he screamed for help as Mr Romney held him down.
The paper recounted another incident in which Mr Romney shouted “atta girl” to a different student at the all-boys’ school who, years later, came out as gay.
“I participated in a lot of high-jinks and pranks during high school and some may have gone too far. And for that I apologise,” Mr Romney told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade during a hastily-arranged radio interview.
He said he did not remember the Lauber incident from long ago, but did not dispute that it happened. He stressed that he did not know either student was gay.
The Republican presidential candidate had begun the day by treading softly on Mr Obama’s historic embrace of same-sex marriage, which seems likely to fire up liberal and conservative activists alike.
He quietly restated his opposition to legalising such marriages, but his campaign turned its full attention to energy, the economy and other issues.
Then the boarding school story was posted online and Mr Romney moved quickly to counter any suggestion he had targeted students because they were gay.
“If there was anything I said that was offensive to someone, I certainly am sorry about that,” he said, adding that “there was no harm intended”.
Mr Romney’s campaign has previously highlighted the candidate’s reputation as a high school prankster in an attempt to humanise him.
In a second interview, he laid out what he said what 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.
The Republican candidate has a complicated record on gay rights, defending some when he ran for governor of Massachusetts but then becoming a leading voice against gay marriage when courts made it legal in the state.
When Mr Romney ran for Senate in 1994, he argued that he would be a better advocate for gay rights’ issues than Democratic senator Ted Kennedy because he would make gay issues mainstream.
“I think the gay community needs more support from the Republican Party and I would be a voice in the Republican Party to foster anti-discrimination efforts,” he said in a 1994 interview.
Meanwhile, Clooney’s dinner for Mr Obama is expected to net close to $15m – an unprecedented amount for a single event. And it means that in one evening the Obama camp and the Democratic Party will collect more than Mr Romney has amassed in his best single month of fund raising.