CINCINNATI — Mitt Romney gingerly distanced himself from a labor issue on the Ohio ballot one day. The next, he embraced the initiative "110 percent."
The equivocation not only highlighted his record of shifting positions but also underscored the local political minefields national candidates often confront in their state-by-state path to the presidency.
Candidates visiting Nevada often wade into the debate about where nuclear waste should go. They're pressed in South Carolina to take a stand on an aircraft maker's labor dispute. In New Hampshire, they face questions about right-to-work issues. And then there are the perennials, such as ethanol subsidies in Iowa and the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina.
Such local issues aren't of concern to most voters across the nation, but these topics can matter greatly to voters wanting to hear the thoughts of candidates soliciting support ahead of presidential primaries. Candidates often work to strike a balance between addressing issues local voters care about without staking out hardline positions that could hurt them elsewhere.
"They've got to be careful about not weighing in on issues that are exclusively local. That could backfire," said Kevin Smith, a conservative activist and likely Republican gubernatorial candidate in New Hampshire. "It's something that could easily be blown up into something bigger than it ought to be."
As Romney proved this week, such local issues can trip up even the most cautious candidate, causing headaches for their national campaigns while hurting their standings in important states for both the primary and general elections.
"Fully support that," Romney said about the Ohio ballot initiative while visiting a local Republican Party office Wednesday in Fairfax, Va.
A day earlier, the former Massachusetts governor visited a site near Cincinnati where volunteers were making hundreds of phone calls to help Republicans defeat the Issue Two ballot effort. The question before voters is whether to repeal Ohio Gov. John Kasich's restrictions on public sector employee bargaining. But when pressed, Romney took a pass on supporting the measure — and just as a Quinnipiac University poll indicated that Ohio voters opposed the GOP-backed restrictions 57 percent to 32 percent.
It turned out that Romney had already weighed in, supporting Kasich's efforts in a June Facebook post.
Republican and Democratic critics alike were quick to point out Romney's waffling. His campaign rivals Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman fired off statements supporting the union restrictions, and President Barack Obama's Ohio state campaign director, Greg Schultz, sent out emails Tuesday night to supporters noting Romney's "sidestep."
Roughly 24 hours later, Romney clarified his support for Kasich.
Some observers questioned whether Romney's response had less to do with the GOP primary, which Ohio will hold well after the early voting states, and more to do with the general election and the need to woo independent voters.
On the other hand, Romney may lose the party loyalists he needs to get the GOP nomination by waffling on the matter.
"The people who would be paying the most attention to this are probably the base of the Republican Party, and that's why it has the potential to be most damaging to him," said veteran Ohio political scientist Gene Beaupre of Xavier University.
At one time, presidential candidates visiting Iowa would stumble over that state's pet issue: federal subsidies for ethanol, the fuel additive the state leads in producing. But the issue has faded as a litmus test in the years since Bob Dole, a strong advocate, won the Iowa caucuses while opponent Phil Gramm of Texas finished a disappointing fifth.
That hasn't stopped Romney this year from noting his support for — and Perry's opposition to — the federal renewable fuel standard as Romney seeks Iowa agribusiness' support.
In South Carolina, candidates always are asked about flying the Confederate battle flag on Statehouse grounds. Supporters say it honors heritage and valiant native sons; opponents, led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, say it is a divisive reminder of slavery. Republicans usually say the flag is a state matter, but Arizona Sen. John McCain said after losing the 2000 primary that he should have spoken out on the issue and admitted that he feared opposing the flag would scuttle his chances in the state.
This year, candidates campaigning in South Carolina have been all but forced to weigh in on Boeing's efforts to build a plant in the state.
And in South Carolina and Nevada, opening Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste depository is a sensitive issue, for opposite reasons.
South Carolina's congressional delegation wants the site in Nevada opened to relieve the Savannah River site, which has been storing nuclear weapons waste. That made recent debate pronouncements by Romney, Perry and Texas Rep. Ron Paul against using the Nevada site hard to swallow for some South Carolina Republicans.
"It's got to go somewhere, and we can't wait for them to figure out where it's going to go," Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said. Voters "are going to want to know what their answers are to that."
In New Hampshire, candidates have had to weigh in on a right-to-work drive aimed at unions.
Romney has already voiced support, saying in an August stop in Claremont, N.H., that "people should have the choice of deciding whether or not they want to join a union and have union dues."
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Concord, N.H., Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C., Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Philip Elliott in Fairfax, Va., contributed to this report.
Contact Dan Sewell at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell