By Mike Lillis - 05/04/12 12:14 AM EDT
The high-profile resignation of a gay adviser presents a high hurdle to Mitt Romney's shift to the center.
Romney, who has all but wrapped up the GOP nomination, has taken strides in recent weeks to soften his stance on a number of issues in order to woo centrist voters he might have alienated with his far-right positions during the knock-down, drag-out Republican primary.
But the exit of Richard Grenell — the Romney campaign's openly gay foreign-affairs spokesman, who stepped down this week amid a conservative outcry over his sexual orientation — puts an early damper on Romney's fight for independent voters. Grenell, a former Bush administration adviser, resigned Tuesday, citing "the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues" that followed his hiring less than three weeks earlier.
The resignation — and Romney's handling of it — revealed a campaign still finding its footing as it attempts a delicate dance between attracting centrists and galvanizing conservatives ahead of November's election, which is expected to be a squeaker hinging largely on the independent vote.
Democrats, for their part, are using the episode to accuse Romney of indulging social conservatives.
"The question this incident raised once again was whether Gov. Romney has the strength and conviction to stand up to the far right wing of his party," Ben LaBolt, spokesman for President Obama's campaign, said Thursday in an email.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the first openly gay member of Congress, was quick to pile on, characterizing Grenell's resignation as evidence that Romney and Republicans are in a "vehemently anti-gay mode" that leaves them at odds with most Americans.
"It is only on the right wing of the Republican Party where the very fact that you're gay becomes a cause of horror, but what's interesting is that Romney is afraid of it," Frank said Thursday. "It confirms that Mitt Romney has sold himself to the right wing, and is enthralled to them, and is worried about doing anything to offend them."
He added, "In this case, right-wing bigotry beat Etch a Sketch."
The Massachusetts liberal said the Grenell episode also damages one of Romney's chief strengths — his image as a sturdy business manager — which is sure to help Obama and the Democrats on the campaign trail.
"This is an extraordinary show of incompetence," Frank charged. "It will redound to the benefit of the Democrats, without question."
Grenell, an aide to former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, was brought onto the Romney campaign in the middle of April as spokesman for foreign policy and national security, an issue gaining prominence in recent weeks as Obama has marked the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, taken steps to wind down the war in Afghanistan and stirred an uproar over his handling of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.
But Grenell resigned abruptly on Tuesday, issuing a brief statement in which he thanked Romney for "his clear message … that being openly gay was a non-issue" but also suggesting that, in some minds, it was.
"While I welcomed the challenge to confront President Obama’s foreign-policy failures and weak leadership on the world stage, my ability to speak clearly and forcefully on the issues has been greatly diminished by the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues that sometimes comes from a presidential campaign," Grenell said.
The Romney campaign did not respond to questions about the Grenell affair Thursday, but spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN on Wednesday evening that the conservative criticism of Grenell's sexual orientation were "disappointing."
"Wherever there are voices of intolerance within the party, or the Democratic Party for that matter — it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from — it’s disappointing," Fehrnstrom said. "And the governor has taken the opportunity in the past to denounce those voices of intolerance.
"We do not take into consideration non-factors like race or ethnicity or sexual orientation," he added. "We look for the best possible people to do the job."
Jamal Simmons, a Washington-based Democratic strategist, said the trouble for Republicans surrounding the Grenell affair transcends the issue of gay rights because it acts to reinforce perceptions that Republicans are less tolerant than Democrats — perceptions that sparked the Bush administration's "compassionate conservative" campaign last decade.
"It's more of an indication of a broader trend; that's really what the Republicans have to be worried about," Simmons said, adding that female voters are particularly influenced by perceptions of discrimination and injustice.
"The Republicans, whenever they come out with a big anti-immigration push, or there's some racial flap that boils up, or there's an issue like this around gay issues, that identifies the Republicans as being intolerant and it scares away some of these women who may agree with them on the policy issues but don't really want to be associated with Republicans because of their social [policies]."
Simmons warned, "You can't lose women by double digits and become president of the United States."
Obama, for his part, has faced his share of criticism over gay rights since taking office, most notably for declining to endorse gay marriage. Still, gay-rights advocates have cheered his decision to cease any legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — which defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman — and to repeal the Pentagon's longstanding "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Frank said Thursday that, on the issue of civil rights, November's election is no contest.
"If you're at all interested in advancing the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] people, [Romney] will be your enemy," Frank said.
Grenell's resignation "confirms how much better — if you care about LGBT equality — Obama is than Romney," he added. "Obama is pretty good and Romney is toxic."