Likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney battled to get back on his economic message after being sidetracked by a debate over gay rights and a reported bullying incident from 1965.
Romney's drive to keep the focus on President Barack Obama's handling of the fragile US economy took a back seat last week when Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage, a move that energised his liberal base and gave the Democratic incumbent a splash of news coverage.
Obama's decision on gay marriage, after resisting the step for two years, contributed to a big surge in fundraising for his campaign. Obama hauled in $15 million at a single, star-studded event in Los Angeles where he played basketball with stars George Clooney and Tobey Maguire.
Romney visited North Carolina, a state that will be central in determining whether he can defeat Obama in the November 6 election.
Romney skirted the same-sex issue in a visit to Charlotte and stuck to the economy, saying Obama represents "old-school liberals" who want to continue to borrow money from countries like China in order to spend it recklessly in Washington.
Romney wants to avoid making same-sex marriage a major focus of the campaign because Obama is much more vulnerable on the economy. Polls show a growing number of Americans favour gay marriage, but the slow economic recovery is by far their major concern. A new Gallup survey said 60 per cent of Americans reported that Obama's support for same-sex marriage will make no difference to their vote. Twenty-six per cent said it would make them less likely to vote for him.
In North Carolina, a crowd of about 600 received Romney enthusiastically, booing almost every mention of Obama or his economic policies and cheering Romney's pledge to "take America back". But he could not escape questions in North Carolina about allegations of bullying a student in high school who was believed to be gay.
"If anybody was offended, I apologise for that," Romney told Charlotte's WSOC-TV when asked about a Washington Post story about the incident at the prestigious Cranbrook School in Michigan.
Romney was said to have clipped off the bleached blond hair of a classmate who had been tackled and pinned down by Romney's friends. The student, John Lauber, was later presumed to be gay. Romney has been on the defensive about the episode, which he says he cannot precisely recall.
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