The head of the Republican Party said Tuesday he regrets the public interpretation of comments in which he said the GOP voted against Mitt Romney last year in part because he was a Mormon.
"Chairman Steele regrets the way his comments have been interpreted," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said in a statement. "Chairman Steele believes Mitt Romney is a respected and influential voice in the Republican Party and looks to his leadership and ideas to help move our party and our nation in the right direction."
Gitcho is a former Romney campaign staffer.
A Romney aide did little to veil his displeasure with Steele.
"Sometimes when you shoot from the hip, you miss the mark. This is one of those times," said spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.
Steele, already under fire for a series of miscues during his first 100 days as Republican leader, offered an unvarnished critique of Romney's faults Friday as he guest-hosted conservative Bill Bennett's national radio program.
He not only jabbed at the former Massachusetts governor, considered in some quarters to be one of the GOP's leading 2012 presidential contenders, but also indicted the political tolerance of his own party during an exchange with a caller who suggested liberals had undermined the candidacy of the former Massachusetts governor.
"Remember, it was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice, to pro-life," Steele said. "It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism. It was the base that rejected Mitch, uh, Mitt, because they thought he was back and forth and waffling on those very economic issues you're talking about. I mean, so, I hear what you're saying, but before we even got to a primary vote, the base had made very clear they had issues with Mitt because if they didn't, he would have defeated John McCain in those primaries in which he lost."
Religion a factor?
Romney lost the 2008 Iowa caucus to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who rode a wave of social conservative support in the state. The caucus is the first contest for candidates seeking the party's nomination. The eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, beat Romney in the ensuing New Hampshire primary, and Romney left the race after a series of Super Tuesday losses.
Last month, Romney told the Deseret News in Utah, home state to his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that "I believe that religion will not be a factor of a significant nature in selecting our nominee, regardless of who might run."
He added: "In my own case, I won evangelical votes in Michigan, in places like Florida. ... I know there's a lot of interest in religion, but I don't think for the great majority of Americans that's the deciding factor."
Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, was elected party chairman in late January. He was criticized in March after he branded remarks that radio host Rush Limbaugh made in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference as "incendiary" and "ugly."
Steele said he had "enormous respect" for Limbaugh and was "maybe a little bit inarticulate."