Mitt Romney apologized Thursday for "stupid" high school pranks that may have gone too far and moved quickly to stamp out any notion that he bullied schoolmates because they were gay.
One day after gay rights moved to the center of the presidential race with President Obama's announcement that he favored same-sex marriage, a Washington Post report about Romney's high school escapades nearly 50 years ago added a personal dimension to Democrats' claim that he's out of step on the sensitive topic.
The newspaper, in a story it posted online on Thursday, reported that in one case, Romney and several schoolmates held down classmate John Lauber and cut off his bleached blond hair after seeking him out in his dorm room at the Cranbrook School, 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. The newspaper 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.
"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' Brian Kilmeade during a hastily arranged radio interview. Romney said he didn't remember the Lauber incident from long ago, but didn't dispute that it happened. He stressed that he didn't know either student was gay.
The Republican presidential candidate had begun the day by treading softly on 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 legalizing such marriages, but his campaign turned its full attention to energy, the economy and other issues.
According to the Post account, Romney was upset about how Lauber wore his bleach-blond hair hanging into his eyes.
"He can't look like that. That's wrong. Just look at him!" Romney told Matthew Friedemann, a close Romney friend and one of five classmates who recalled the incident for the Post. A few days later, Romney led a group of boys out of his dorm room at Cranbrook School and into Lauber's, where the group tackled him and held him down. Romney cut his hair with scissors as a teary-eyed Lauber screamed for help.
"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."
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.
Obama, meanwhile, wasted little time casting Romney as "backwards on equality" on Thursday, eager to transform his historic embrace of same-sex marriage into donor enthusiasm and grass-roots vigor.
Just one day after announcing his support of the top gay rights issue, Obama was attending a lavish West Coast fundraiser hosted by actor George Clooney in Los Angeles' Studio City area, the heart of celebrity gay marriage activism. At the same time, his campaign rolled out a Web video claiming Romney would roll back some rights for same-sex couples
White House spokesman Jay Carney brushed aside questions about the timing of the attack on Romney, saying that Obama and Romney had differed on issues of gay rights even before the president declared his support for same-sex marriage.
"Gov. Romney is for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enshrine discrimination into our founding legal document," Carney said. "The president thinks that's wrong. So their positions were starkly different before yesterday."
Just hours after Obama voiced his support for gay marriage in an ABC interview, the campaign emailed a clip of the interview and a personal statement from the president to its vast list of supporters, drawing attention to his stance.
Still, Obama said Vice President Biden got "a little bit over his skis" in publicly embracing gay marriage, forcing Obama to speed up his own plans to announce support for the right of same-sex couples to marry.
"Would I have preferred to have done this in my own way, in my own terms, without I think, there being a lot of notice to everybody? Sure," Obama said. "But all's well that ends well."
Biden apologized to Obama on Wednesday for getting ahead of him, a person familiar with the exchange said.
Clooney's dinner was organized by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, and will include such celebrity guests as Robert Downey Jr. and Barbra Streisand. The event was initially to be a spring gala hosted by Katzenberg at his house. But Katzenberg's home is under renovation, so Clooney offered to host instead.
The dinner, heavily promoted online by the Obama campaign, is expected to net close to $15 million. That's an unprecedented amount for a single event.