ARBUTUS, Md. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried Wednesday to shake accusations that he's an inconsistent conservative after a top adviser compared him to an Etch A Sketch toy.
When Romney should have been enjoying the spoils of his convincing win in the Illinois primary and a coveted endorsement from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the off-handed comment put him on the defensive instead.
His Republican rivals and Democrats were positively giddy over the remark, which gave them an opening to resurrect a familiar story line that the former Massachusetts governor will take any position on an issue to get elected.
The episode, likely to dog Romney in the coming days, began when adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was asked on CNN if the extended primary fight might force Romney so far to the right that it would hurt him with moderate voters in the fall.
Fehrnstrom responded: "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."
Fehrnstrom did not try to take back his words when he was asked to clarify them. He said only that the general election is "a different race, with different candidates, and the main issue now becomes" exclusively President Barack Obama.
Romney has long battled the perception of being a flip-flopper, and to hear one of his most trusted advisers compare him to a toy that, when shaken, clears its screen for another image was too good for his critics to pass up.
"My children had Etch A Sketches, they were great for car rides," rival Newt Gingrich, badly trailing Romney in the polls, said in Lake Charles, La. "But you'll notice that their pictures aren't permanent, their pictures aren't locked down. You can redo it any time you want. That's the problem."
"Here's Gov. Romney's staff, they don't even have the decency to wait until they get the nomination to explain to us how they'll sell us out," Gingrich added. "And I think having an Etch A Sketch as your campaign model raises every doubt about where we're going."
Rick Santorum, too, tried to turn Fehrnstrom's comment into an attack line. The former Pennsylvania senator stopped at a toy store in Louisiana to buy one and brought it to a campaign event.
"Gov. Romney's campaign had a real moment of truth today," he told reporters in Kenner, La., after touring a fish processing plant.
"It actually revealed what everybody knew or suspected but now know: Gov. Romney is interested in saying whatever is necessary to win the election and when the game changes, he'll change," Santorum said.
He urged voters in Louisiana, which holds its primary Saturday, to pick a candidate who stands "firmly on the rocks of freedom, not on the sands of an Etch A Sketch toy."
Democrats, meanwhile, released a web video mocking Fehrnstrom.
Meanwhile, at a town hall-style meeting at an American Legion post near Baltimore, Romney said nothing about the dustup. But he changed his mind and, after the event, tried to put to rest questions about his changed positions on such issues as abortion and gay rights. He opposes both, after having supported them in the past.
"The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same," Romney said. "I'm running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative governor. I will be running as a conservative Republican nominee — hopefully, nominee at that point. The policies and the positions are the same."
As reporters arrived for the event, Santorum's national press secretary Alice Stewart handed them miniature Etch A Sketches — a sign that the toy will likely remain part of the campaign longer than any doodle sketched on its screen.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn in Kenner, La., contributed to this report.