WASHINGTON -- In the span of one morning, top Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu referred to President Obama as dumb and stupid, called the Chicago political culture from which he came "corrupt," brought up Obama's admitted use of marijuana as a kid in Hawaii, resurfaced the name of Tony Rezko -- the jailed financier with ties to Obama -- and then questioned the president's Americanness.
It was a tour-de-force performance for the former New Hampshire governor, whose demonstrated willingness to throw punches has made him the wartime consigliere for the Romney campaign. But moments after Sununu said on a conference call Tuesday morning that he wished Obama "would learn how to be an American," he tried to clarify and downplay the remark.
"What I thought I said but I guess I didn't say is that the president has to learn the American formula for creating business," Sununu said. "The American formula for creating business is not to have the government create business."
Sununu's meandering explanation that he instead was referring to Obama's economic credentials seems a sign that the Romney campaign is still searching for a strategy to direct the political conversation away from Romney's tax returns and his time at Bain Capital. But the idea that Sununu had misspoken seemed to conflict with an earlier appearance he made on Fox News in which he unleashed similarly personal swipes against the president, including hitting his past admission of smoking marijuana as a teenager in Hawaii.
"This guy doesn’t understand how to create jobs. So there is no surprise -- there should be because of that statement no surprise on why he failed so miserably over the last four years, in terms of job creation," Sununu said on Fox.
"He has no idea how the American system functions, and we shouldn't be surprised about that, because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia, another set of years in Indonesia," he said. "And, frankly, when he came to the U.S. he worked as a community organizer, which is a socialized structure, and then got into politics in Chicago."
On the later conference call, Sununu also responded to demands that Romney release more years of tax returns.
"It just shows how stupid the Obama campaign is to think that someone who has been a public businessman all his life and governor of Massachusetts -- if he didn't pay his returns, you don't think the IRS would be knocking at his door?" he said. (Romney didn't release his tax returns in his 1994 run for U.S. Senate or his 2002 runs for governor.)
"If that were true the IRS would have knocked at his door and we would all know about it," he said. "So by definition in running that ad, the Obama campaign has once again demonstrated that they are clearly and unequivocably a bunch of liars."
The Obama campaign seized on the Sununu call soon after it ended.
"The Romney campaign has officially gone off the deep end. The question is what else they’ll pull to avoid answering serious questions about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and investments in foreign tax havens and offshore accounts," said spokeswoman Lis Smith. "This meltdown and over-the-top rhetoric won’t make things better -- it only calls attention to how desperate they are to change the conversation."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), reportedly a short-lister for the vice presidential spot, backed Sununu. "I think he clarified it," he told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. "Obviously, the governor has a knack for colorful language and can be very informative and entertaining."
UPDATE: Sununu appeared on CNN later Tuesday and apologized for his phrasing that he wished Obama "would learn how to be an American," but didn't back down from the general attack on Obama's job creation record.
"I made a mistake, I shouldn't have used those words," he said. "I'm apologizing for those words, I shouldn't have used them."
When asked why he referenced Obama's past pot use or time in Indonesia, he dodged the question and responded that "the president has to stop denigrating American values" and "he's sending the wrong message to the american people that if you're rich, you're somehow evil."
WATCH VIDEO OF SUNUNU'S CNN APPEARANCE BELOW:
Jon Ward contributed reporting.
This is a developing story and has been updated.