By Justin Sink and Amie Parnes - 08/24/12 09:06 PM EDT
Mitt Romney on Friday used a rally in his native state of Michigan to take a swipe at the controversy surrounding President Obama's birth certificate, reintroducing discussion of the president's birthplace into the campaign — and providing Team Obama with a new round of ammunition.
Romney made the comment early in his speech to the thousands of supporters gathered a short drive from the town where he and his wife, Ann, grew up.
"No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised."
The joke, a clear allusion to conspiracy theories surrounding Obama's birthplace, drew quick condemnation from Democrats eager to highlight the moment as the latest gaffe in a rough week for the Republican presidential hopeful.
Headlines in the days preceding the Republican National Convention were dominated by controversial comments about rape by Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and a potential hurricane threatening to disrupt the GOP gathering, which starts Monday in Tampa, Fla.
Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, a veteran of presidential campaigns, said he was "baffled" by Romney's remark.
"I think if he wants to get elected, he's got to move to the center and he's got to have a Sister Souljah moment with the people in his party, but he's doing exactly the opposite," Elmendorf said. "Birthers are the craziest of the crazy. He's got to, at some point, show him that he's not captured by the people in his party that many people can't tolerate."
"Anytime where the Republican campaign is not focused squarely on the economy is a good day for Democrats," Elmendorf said. "Anytime they're talking about Medicare, abortion, birthers, we're winning."
Later Friday, Romney said the comment wasn't intended as a "swipe" at the president.
"No, no, not a swipe," Romney told CBS News. "I've said throughout the campaign and before, there's no question about where he was born. He was born in the U.S. This was fun about us, and coming home. And humor, you know — we've got to have a little humor in a campaign."
But Obama campaign officials also said privately they thought the remark was "over the line," especially after Romney had spent much of the past two weeks criticizing the president over the tenor of the campaign.
Team Obama press secretary Ben LaBolt issued a statement moments after the comments accusing Romney of having "embraced the most strident voices in his party instead of standing up to them."
"Governor Romney’s decision to directly enlist himself in the birther movement should give pause to any rational voter across America," said LaBolt.
And Obama traveling press secretary Jen Psaki told The Hill that Romney's comments contrasted with the substantive policy discussion the president was trying to have.
"While the president has spent this week talking about his commitment to education, once again Mitt Romney and his team have descended into a debate that is not about policy and has nothing to do with what the American people care about."
Campaign manager Jim Messina also emailed supporters with a fundraising plea that played off the remarks.
But Romney allies looked to downplay the remarks and pushed back against Psaki, who appeared on cable news to criticize Romney.
"I kind of found it somewhat laughable that these guys who have taken gutter politics to a new low, if you could do that, are suddenly feigning outrage about this comment," Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer told MSNBC. "The governor made a lighthearted moment, it was nothing more than that."
And aides to the Romney campaign emphasized Friday that the candidate was not trying to insinuate he doubted the president was born in the United States.
"The governor has always said, and has repeatedly said, he believes the president was born here in the United States. He was only referencing that Michigan, where he is campaigning today, is the state where he himself was born and raised," a Romney spokesperson said.
Obama was born in Hawaii, and the White House has provided a long-form copy of the president's birth certificate. Still, some conservatives continue to question its authenticity.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said Romney's comment "wasn't a big deal at all."
"My guess is he wouldn't do it again, seeing how it has taken over everything over the past few hours, but this is so much hypocrisy on their end," Mackowiak said. "Get a sense of humor."
He added that he thought there would be very little spillover into the convention next week from the Romney joke or other controversies plaguing the GOP of late.
"My sense is convention is such a unique thing that it's sort of totally separate," Mackowiak said. "I think the question will be what kind of reception do our young stars get."
But Obama supporters said Friday they saw a significant opportunity in Romney's remark. And they salivated over a week Romney advisers had hoped would build momentum into the convention but instead was spoiled by gaffes and missteps.
"Between this and Akin, he's had a horrible week," said a former senior administration official. "All this does is create a giant opening for us to remind people that this is the same guy who's been a hypocrite on other issues like releasing his income taxes."
— Posted at 12:33 p.m. and updated at 5:06 p.m.