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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And on the presidential campaign trail, it's been a week of mixed messages from two of the Republican hopefuls - former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and current Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Romney revived accusations he's a flip-flopper when he waded into a battle over a ballot proposition in Ohio, while Perry created his own distraction by revisiting questions about President Obama's place of birth. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Mitt Romney stopped by a phone bank outside Cincinnati this week. He was there to boost GOP volunteers working on Issue 2 - on the statewide ballot in less than two weeks. If passed, the measure, backed by Ohio Governor John Kasich, would clear the way for restrictions on public workers' ability to bargain and strike.

But in Ohio, Romney stopped short of endorsing the ballot measure, declining to say one way or another. His opponents pounced. Here's candidate Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, on ABC News yesterday.

JON HUNTSMAN: It looks a little bit like his position on the debt ceiling, a little bit like his position on Libya. It smacks a little bit of leading from behind. This is a time when if you're going to be president of the United States, you show a little presidential leadership.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Rick Perry's campaign accused Romney of, quote, finger-in-the-wind politics, and noted that back in June, Romney had supported the ballot proposal. Polls do show the measure to be unpopular.

Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck says backing Issue 2 may not play well in a state that's expected to be a hotly contested battleground in the 2012 presidential race. Here's Beck on Romney.

PAUL BECK: But he surely knew what the opinion polls were saying. His staffers, or he himself, would have seen that and certainly called that to his attention. And so he was being coy, it sounds like.

GONYEA: Then came yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Romney was at another GOP phone bank operation - this one in Fairfax, Virginia. And he offered a new answer on the Ohio ballot question.

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, I'm sorry if I created any confusion in that regard. I fully support Governor Kasich's - I think it's called Question 2, in Ohio - fully support that.

GONYEA: The Perry campaign responded with a statement awarding Romney a score of 10.0 on what it called the flip-flop scale. And it created a twitter campaign under the hashtag #flipflopmitt.

But even as Perry tried to capitalize, the Texas governor had a change of position of his own in the same 24-hour period. Earlier, in an interview with Parade magazine, Perry said he had no idea if President Obama's Hawaii birth certificate is real. On Tuesday, on CNBC, he was asked to clarify. The interviewer is John Harwood.

JOHN HARWOOD: You chose to keep it alive in your interview with Parade magazine over the weekend. Why'd you do that?

GOV. RICK PERRY: I - it's a good issue to keep alive. Just, you know, Donald's got to have some fun.

GONYEA: Donald is Donald Trump, a leading force in the so-called birther movement. Then yesterday, in an interview with a Tampa Bay TV station, Perry backed off.

PERRY: I don't think I was expressing doubts. I was having some fun with Donald Trump. So I mean –

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, are you comfortable that he's an American citizen?

PERRY: Oh, yeah. And look, it's fun to, you know, lighten up a little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So you have no doubt that he's an American citizen.

PERRY: I have no doubt about it.

GONYEA: The issue took away from Perry's real, and planned, topic of the week - his new flat-tax proposal - while Romney would have liked to do nothing but criticize President Obama. These are just the kind of distractions campaigns hope to avoid. Candidates don't always cooperate.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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