WASHINGTON (AP) -- A coordinated attack by Democrats on Mitt Romney's plan to "get rid of" Planned Parenthood to help balance the federal budget is part of a larger campaign to ensure that Romney and other Republicans lose credibility with female voters.
The Romney campaign contends that the remark has been taken out of context. Yet even the debate over what Romney meant or didn't mean underscores the political peril he faces as the GOP nomination fight rages on.
Facing continued conservative skepticism, Romney has been pushed further to the right to appeal to his party's right flank. In doing so, he risks alienating key constituencies -- women and independents, among them -- while drawing unwanted attention to his inconsistent positions on social issues.
The Planned Parenthood controversy stems from a recent interview with a Missouri television station in which Romney addressed his plans to cut the federal deficit.
"Is the program so critical that it is worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?" Romney asked. "And on that basis, of course you get rid of ObamaCare, that's the easy one. But there are others: Planned Parenthood, we're going to get rid of that. The subsidy for Amtrak, I would eliminate that. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, both excellent programs, but we can't afford to borrow money to pay for these things."
Asked to clarify the Planned Parenthood reference hours after the report aired, top Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney did not mean to suggest his administration would eliminate the women's health care provider altogether. Indeed, in remarks before and after the Missouri interview, Romney indicated he would focus on eliminating the organization's federal funding, as Republicans in Washington and in state legislatures across the country have fought to do in recent months.
"It would not be getting rid of the organization," Fehrnstrom said. "They have other sources of funding besides government appropriations, but in order to achieve balance, we have to make some tough decisions about spending."
Romney has personally avoided the issue since Fehrnstrom's comments Monday night, but his campaign released a statement suggesting it was morally irresponsible "to borrow money from China to fund our nation's leading abortion provider."
"The real question should be why President Obama thinks that is the right course for our nation," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
Democrats, meanwhile, have intensified their push to exploit Romney's remark. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described it as an "an assault on the judgment of women." Democratic congresswomen and party officials from across the nation issued similar statements and hosted conference calls with reporters, and the Democratic National Committee released a new video seizing on the comment.
Democrats hope to keep the controversy going as long as they can. They seemed to score political points in recent weeks as the Republican presidential contest was consumed by President Barack Obama's decision to compel insurance companies to cover contraception, even for employees of religious institutions who oppose the practice. Republicans, Romney among them, criticized the president's decision, framing the issue as one of religious freedom, while Democrats charged it was about fundamental access to birth control.
The focus from the economy to social issues concerned some Republicans in Washington and on the campaign trail alike. In recent days, it appeared that the party was beginning to move on.
The Planned Parenthood debate offers new challenges for Romney, who has struggled to convince his party's most passionate voters that he's an authentic conservative.
As a gubernatorial candidate in 2002, Romney signed a Planned Parenthood questionnaire that documents broad support for the organization he now says he would like to strip of federal funding.
He said, for example, that he supported using state tax dollars to fund abortion services through Medicaid for low-income women, according to a copy of the signed questionnaire. He also pledged support for increased access to emergency contraception such as the "morning after pill," which he now condemns as an "abortive pill."
Romney concedes that he shifted from being pro-choice to anti-abortion after becoming governor. But he insists he has been consistent on all other social issues.
Saul offered this comment when asked about the Planned Parenthood questionnaire: "Mitt Romney is firmly pro-life and he explained his reasons for becoming pro-life many years ago."
It's unclear if that answer will satisfy his critics -- Republicans or Democrats.