Either way, Mitt Romney created a new tempest when he told an Ohio news station that he was opposed to a Senate amendment, favored by conservatives and under debate in Congress on Wednesday, that would allow employers and insurers to limit coverage of contraceptives if they have religious or moral objections.
“I’m not for the bill,” Mr. Romney said, but then added, “the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife, I’m not going there.”
Mr. Romney seemed to be further distancing himself from the hard-edged social conservatism of his chief Republican rival, Rick Santorum, who has argued that contraception is damaging to society.
But in an apparent misunderstanding, Mr. Romney instead roused the momentary ire of many social conservatives, who already doubt his commitment to their cause.
Mr. Romney and his aides quickly corrected his remarks, saying he strongly supports the Senate amendment, and had not properly understood the question. (The slip followed a series of off-key comments about his wife’s Cadillacs and friends who own Nascar teams.)
The episode began when Mr. Romney was asked about his view of the sweeping amendment, sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, that would permit employers and insurers to refuse to offer health coverage that violated their beliefs.
The bill has been championed by leading social conservatives, who describe President Obama’s effort to require religiously affiliated institutions, like hospitals or universities, to offer contraceptive coverage as an assault on religious liberty.
Mr. Obama’s supporters call it a vital step for women’s health and say that Mr. Blunt’s amendment is a dangerous intrusion between doctors and their patients.
Despite the initial confusion over the Blunt amendment, Mr. Romney’s original response offered a clear alternative to Mr. Santorum’s often-stated views on contraception.
Mr. Santorum, a conservative Roman Catholic who says he does not personally believe in using contraception, has repeatedly said that the wide availability of birth control has had negative moral and social impacts on the country.
In an interview in October, he promised, “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is, I think, the dangers of contraception in this country.”
Mr. Romney has sought to portray himself in recent days as a more measured candidate than Mr. Santorum, declaring that he would not “light my hair on fire” to court conservatives.
His interview on ONN, an Ohio television station, set off a scramble among his staff members to quell an online storm. Mr. Romney immediately called in to a conservative Boston radio show and said, “Of course, I support the Blunt amendment.”
Referring to the ONN reporter who had interviewed him, Mr. Romney said, “I thought he was talking about some state law that prevented people from getting contraception.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an evangelical Christian group, expressed surprise that Mr. Romney, in his television interview, had not immediately jumped on what Mr. Perkins described as the “red-hot issue” related to contraception — the threat to religious freedom posed by the Obama mandate.
“When he talked about the issue as being a matter of contraception between husband and wife — that’s not what the issue today is about,” Mr. Perkins said. “Either he’s so focused on going after Santorum, or he’s been asleep for the last month.”