WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney battled to get back on his economic message on Friday after being sidetracked by a debate over gay rights and a reported bullying incident from 1965.
Romney's drive to keep the focus on President Barack Obama's handling of the fragile U.S. economy took a back seat this week when Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage, a move that energized his liberal base and gave the Democratic incumbent a splash of news coverage.
Obama's decision on gay marriage, after resisting the step for two years, contributed to a big surge in fund-raising for his campaign. Obama hauled in $15 million at a single, star-studded event in Los Angeles where he played basketball on Friday with stars George Clooney and Tobey Maguire.
Far from Hollywood, Romney visited North Carolina, a state that will be central in determining whether he can defeat Obama in the November 6 election.
Romney skirted the same-sex issue in a visit to Charlotte and stuck to the economy, saying Obama represents "old-school liberals" who want to continue to borrow money from countries like China in order to spend it recklessly in Washington.
"This recovery's been the slowest, most tepid since Hoover," said Romney in a reference to Depression-era President Herbert Hoover from the 1930s.
Romney wants to avoid making same-sex marriage a major focus of the campaign because Obama is much more vulnerable on the economy. Polls show a growing number of Americans favor gay marriage, but the slow economic recovery is by far their major concern.
"There will come a day when Romney will need to debate Obama on stage, but we don't need to have that debate now," a Romney adviser said. "We want that debate to be about economy and jobs. And number two, we believe the net results of this will be to our benefit."
A new Gallup survey said 60 percent of Americans reported that Obama's support for same-sex marriage will make no difference to their vote. Twenty-six percent said it would make them less likely to vote for him.
In North Carolina, a crowd of about 600 at the Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Company received Romney enthusiastically, booing almost every mention of Obama or his economic policies and cheering Romney's pledge to "take America back."
As Romney spoke in North Carolina, Obama touted mortgage relief in Nevada, another battleground state.
With Romney breaking no new ground on the economy, he could not escape questions in North Carolina about allegations of bullying a student in high school who was believed to be gay.
"If anybody was offended, I apologize for that," Romney told Charlotte's WSOC-TV when asked about a Washington Post story about the incident at the prestigious Cranbrook School in Michigan. Romney was said to have clipped off the bleached blond hair of a classmate who had been tackled and pinned down by Romney's friends.
The student, John Lauber, was later presumed to be gay.
Romney has been on the defensive about the episode, which he says he cannot precisely recall.
The former Massachusetts governor also will need to address gay rights when he speaks at the evangelical Liberty University on Saturday. He will allude to traditional marriage as "an enduring institution that deserves to be defended," an aide said.
The Romney campaign has sought to use the candidate's wife, Ann, to attract more support from women voters who favor Obama. She also has tried to make Romney, who can sometimes come across as stiff and robotic, more accessible.
Ann Romney wrote an opinion piece for USA Today and conducted a series of interviews in advance of Mother's Day on Sunday.
Her status as a stay-at-home mother who raised five sons has been ridiculed by some Democrats who contend the wealthy Romneys are out of touch with many women who raise children while they try to hold down jobs and struggle to make ends meet.
"On Mother's Day, Mitt always brings me lilacs, a tradition he started the year I became a mother," she wrote in USA Today.
The Restore Our Future SuperPAC group that supports Romney released a video accusing Obama supporters of denigrating Ann Romney for being a stay-at-home mom.
Additional reporting by Sam Youngman in Charlotte; Editing by Stacey Joyce