Republican challenger Mitt Romney returned to the debunked conspiracy theory around President Barack Obama's citizenship Friday, joking that "no one's ever asked to see my birth certificate."
The remark was a clear reference to the discredited claims that Obama was not born in the United States and thus is ineligible to be president. Hawaii officials have repeatedly verified Obama's citizenship, and courts have rebuffed lawsuits over the issue.
The comment drew focus from where Romney would rather have it as he makes his way to the Republicans' national convention early next week. Voters have made it clear the economy is the top issue in the November election. In a tight race, Romney's campaign also wants to boost support among independent and undecided voters, for whom Obama's birth certificate is presumably a non-issue.
The Obama campaign quickly responded to Romney's remark. "Throughout this campaign, Governor Romney has embraced the most strident voices in his party instead of standing up to them," said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. "Gov. Romney's decision to directly enlist himself in the birther movement should give pause to any rational voter across America."
Romney's comment came as he campaigned in his home state, Michigan. "They know that this is the place that we were born and raised," he told a crowd.
Top Romney adviser Kevin Madden tried to soften the comments, saying later: "The governor has always said, and has repeatedly said, he believes the president was born here in the United States." He said Romney wasn't intentionally making a reference to the questions about Obama's birth certificate.
Madden said Romney did not need to apologize because he was simply drawing attention to the fact that Michigan was the state where he was born and raised.
Romney's comment for the moment aligned him with a conservative fringe of the Republican Party that has pursued the issue. Among the most prominent Romney supporters who have questioned Obama's birth in Hawaii has been developer Donald Trump.
Obama has been dogged throughout his presidency by question about his birthplace. He released a long form copy of his birth certificate last year, showing he was born in Hawaii in 1961.
Romney had been careful to steer clear of the birth certificate issue, even while enthusiastically accepting support from Trump. Whenever he was asked about the issue in interviews, Romney always demurred and said it was a settled issue.
Romney's comment came on a quiet campaign day for Obama and a day after Romney gave Democrats another opening to attack, saying big businesses in the U.S. were "doing fine" in the struggling economy in part because they get advantages from overseas tax havens.
His comments were a reminder that the multimillionaire candidate has kept some of his personal fortune in low-tax foreign accounts, including Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
"Big business is doing fine in many places," Romney said during a campaign fundraiser Thursday. "They get the loans they need, they can deal with all the regulation. They know how to find ways to get through the tax code, save money by putting various things in the places where there are low tax havens around the world for their businesses."
Romney's assertions resembled Obama's declaration earlier this summer that the "private sector is doing fine." Romney and other Republicans pounced on the president's comments and cast them as an indication that he was out of touch with the nation's economic struggles.
Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy and Julie Pace contributed.