MANCHESTER, NH -- Aides to Gov. Mitt Romney were left shaking their heads late Saturday night after a question directed to Romney by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on the issue of contraception. After the debate, one top Romney aide suggested Stephanopoulos has a "strange obsession" with contraception and called the query "the oddest question in a debate this year."
In the debate's second segment, Stephanopoulos noted that GOP candidate Rick Santorum has criticized Supreme Court rulings on the issue of privacy. Stephanopoulos turned to Romney and said, "Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?"
Romney looked both amused and perplexed at the same time. "George, this is an unusual topic that you're raising," he said. Romney explained that no state has any intention of banning contraception, but Stephanopoulos pressed the question again. "George, I don't know whether a state has a right to ban contraception," Romney said. "No state wants to. I mean, the idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do that no state wants to do and asking me whether they could do it or not is a kind of silly thing." Later, an exasperated Romney concluded, "Contraception -- it's working just fine. Just leave it alone." The crowd applauded.
Stephanopoulos appeared to be trying to push Romney to make a statement about a 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut, that involved an unenforced state law on contraception and was a precursor to Roe v. Wade. Romney would not play along.
Afterward, Eric Fehrnstrom, a top aide to Romney, was asked about the exchange. "That was the oddest question in a debate this year," Fehrnstrom answered. "It is not an issue for us. If you have a question about it, you should ask a constitutional scholar. We are not proposing to ban contraception, nor are we aware of any state that is proposing to ban contraception. And to the extent that it came up at all, you should talk to George Stephanopoulos. He seems to have a strange obsession with contraception."
Republicans in the debate hall were clearly irritated by Stephanopoulos' question, but after the debate, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters that Romney's answer showed "a surprising lack of awareness."
"I thought it demonstrated that Mitt Romney doesn't realize that the Supreme Court actually decided that states can't ban contraception -- a surprising lack of awareness about those issues," Wasserman Schultz said. When asked whether she believed Romney, a graduate of Harvard Law School, actually did not know about the Griswold case, Wasserman Schultz said, "I thought it was very clear he didn't know. He kept insisting that there is no state that wants to ban contraception. Then why would there be a whole Supreme Court case over it?"
The contraception episode, along with extensive questioning by ABC on gay marriage and gay adoption, renewed grumbling among Republicans about GOP debates moderated by mainstream media figures with liberal backgrounds -- in the case of Stephanopoulos, as a top operative in the 1992 Clinton campaign and first-term Clinton White House. During the debate, Republican political strategist Mike Murphy sent out a tweet that likely spoke for a lot of Republicans: "Why is it every ABC question sounds like a Democratic wedge issue in the general election?"