PITTSBURGH -- Walking a careful line, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Friday he had wanted an openly gay spokesman who resigned from his campaign this week to stay on. Hours later, he worked to court the party's conservative wing by meeting with former rival Rick Santorum.
In an interview with Fox News, Romney said his campaign hires people "not based upon their ethnicity, or their sexual preference or their gender but upon their capability." He called the former spokesman, Richard Grenell, a "capable individual" and said many senior campaign aides urged him not to leave.
Romney struggled through the primary to court conservatives, particularly evangelical Christian voters, and many flocked to Santorum. Now the presumptive nominee, Romney is trying to court the base of the party without alienating independent, swing and other voters he will need to beat Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
Details on what Romney and Santorum discussed were not immediately available. Santorum did not offer Romney his endorsement.
The Grenell flap shows how carefully Romney is treading on the subject. Grenell was hired in late April to speak for Romney on national security and foreign policy issues.
A vocal supporter of gay marriage, which Romney opposes, Grenell resigned Tuesday after conservative critics raised questions about his sexual orientation. His departure also came after he was conspicuously absent from a week of campaign discussion dominated by national security issues, in part because of the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden.
Grenell said in a statement that he felt his ability to do his job was "greatly diminished by the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues."
His departure sparked an outcry among gay rights groups. Romney's comments were his first on the issue, and he did not hit back at Grenell's critics or defend him. He said it was Grenell's decision to leave the campaign.
In a separate appearance Friday on MSNBC, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom insisted that Romney previously had denounced the "voices of intolerance that expressed themselves during this debate."
At an appearance at the Values Voter Summit in October, Fehrnstrom said Romney "denounced some of the poisonous language that was being used by some of the same people" who criticized Grenell.
"We should remember that decency and civility are values too," Romney said at that conference, referring to Bryan Fischer, an activist at the American Family Association, which promotes traditional family values. "One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause."
At the conference, Romney also implicitly criticized figures on the religious right who were attacking his Mormon faith, including evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress. At the time, Jeffress was supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was running against Romney in the Republican presidential primary.
Fischer has made anti-gay remarks in the past and was one of the people who criticized Grenell. "Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman. If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead," Fischer said on Twitter after Grenell was hired.