Mitt Romney should be flying high right now, cruising into an easy convention week where he gets to dictate the message and roll out his campaign and image. But instead--following a pattern that developed during his GOP primary campaign earlier this year--he's mucking up his own message with a flip remark.
During an appearance Friday in Michigan, his home state and where his dad was governor, the Republican presidential hopeful waded into trouble by referencing, or joking, about the fringe conspiracy theory that questions whether or not President Barack Obama is eligible for the office based on the idea he was not born an American citizen.
"Now I love being home, in this place where Ann and I were raised. Where both of us were born. Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital; I was born at Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate, they know that this is the place that we were born and raised," Romney said, to cheers and laughter by the audience.
The theory has been disputed by the state of Hawaii, where Obama was born, which has publicly released his birth certificate. But the idea, begun during the 2008 presidential campaign, has persisted as people like Donald Trump have continued to perpetuate it.
So far in the campaign, Romney had not given credence to the idea. And while spokesmen for Romney's campaign have tried to stem criticism of his comments by saying the former Massachusetts governor merely was highlighting his own roots, the Obama campaign is calling foul.
"Throughout this campaign, Gov. Romney has embraced the most strident voices in his party instead of standing up to them," said Ben LaBolt, Obama's spokesman, in a release. "It's one thing to give the stage in Tampa to Donald Trump, Sheriff Arpaio, and Kris Kobach. But Gov. Romney's decision to directly enlist himself in the birther movement should give pause to any rational voter across America."
The birther movement has been seen as racist by some analysts, who argue that it's part of an effort to paint Obama as un-American, or an "other."
Racial references by both campaigns roiled the race just last week, as Vice President Joe Biden was attacked for telling a mixed-race audience that Republicans seeking to deregulate Wall Street wanted to put "ya'll back in chains." And Romney was accused of conjuring up the image of Obama as an "angry black man" by repeatedly describing him as angry at another campaign event.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.