Bullying Story Sidetracks Romney's Campaign

PHOTO: Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop at Lansing Community College, left, and Stevens Hall, where Mitt Romney lived while he was attending Cranbrook School.
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Mitt Romney is struggling to get beyond a story about the time he bullied a gay student at a boarding school four decades ago.

The story, reported by the Washington Post, gained traction and credibility as Romney's high school friends spoke on the record to corroborate the account of the candidate as a teenager cutting a gay student's hair while he was pinned to the ground.

"I saw it with my own eyes," Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer who was Romney's high school pal at the elite Cranbrook School in Michigan, told ABC News. "It was a hack job ... clumps of hair taken off."

Romney said in interviews on Thursday that he didn't remember cutting off John Lauber's hair while the student cried. He laughed off questions about it but also apologized for "dumb things" he did in high school and claimed that homosexuality was the furthest thing from his mind.

Maxwell's brother, Peter, told ABC News that he didn't witness any bullying, though he was familiar with the pranks that went on at Cranbrook.

"For Mitt to be a bully just shocks me," he said. "He was the kind of a guy who would bend over backwards to do something for you and would go out of his way to help people, and for him to be characterized as a bully would be the farthest thing from the truth."

He added: "He did have some funny pranks that were pulled. I think the one where he was filming two of his friends having a meal on the median of Woodward Avenue for a school thing. I thought that was fabulous. I remember when that happened."

Republicans have questioned the timing of the Post's story, which was published the day after President Obama said in an interview with ABC News that he thought gays should be allowed to marry one another. Christine Lauber, the older sister of the bullied student, John Lauber, who died in 2004, told ABC News that she spoke with the Post last weekend for its story.

She also said that she had "no knowledge" of what happened at Cranbrook, because she was in college at the time. The Lauber family has said it won't comment beyond a statement saying that "the portrayal" of Lauber is "factually incorrect."

"When I saw the look on his face, it was a look I'll never forget," Maxwell said. "This was bullying supreme."

Romney's campaign and even his wife have countered criticism of him as a stiff candidate by saying he has a prankster side. But Thursday night, the campaign published statements from two of Romney's Cranbrook classmates who said the Republican has a sense of humor but isn't mean.

Democrats have been delighted by the way the story has played out, circulating news clippings to reporters and highlighting the most damning quotes aimed at Romney, such as Maxwell calling the bullying "vicious."

Romney is scheduled to give four interviews with news stations in North Carolina on Friday.

ABC News's Shushannah Walshe contributed to this report.

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