[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/12/art.mittsteele.gi.jpg caption="The Romney camp fired back at Steele's comments."]WASHINGTON (CNN) - In an unusual move for the person tasked with being his party's top cheerleader, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele is shining a light on the political vulnerabilities of one of the GOP's top figures and a likely frontrunner for the 2012 Republican nomination - former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Now Romney's team is hitting back.
Steele, guest-hosting on Bill Bennett's radio show Friday, cast doubt on Romney's conservative bona fides and blamed the Republican base for rejecting Romney last year because "it had issues with Mormonism" and was unsure of Romney's commitment to opposing to abortion rights. Those comments aren't sitting too well with Romney's political team.
"Sometimes when you shoot from the hip, you miss the target," said Romney spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom. "This is one of those times."
A Romney aide noted that the former Massachusetts governor won the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual straw poll the past three years, won 11 presidential primaries and caucuses, and earned 4.2 million votes by the time he left the race in February of last year.
The RNC chairman made the comments when responding to a caller who claimed that Romney, if he was the nominee, would have been a stronger candidate against Obama than John McCain. The caller argued that Romney never got a chance to be the nominee because "liberals" and the media pushed hard for McCain to win the Republican nomination.
But Steele disagreed.
"Remember, it was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice to pro-life," Steele told the caller. "It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism. It was the base that rejected Mitt because they thought he was back and forth and waffling on those very economic issues you're talking about."
"So, I mean, I hear what you're saying, but before we even got to a primary vote, the base had made very clear they had issues with Mitt because if they didn't, he would have defeated John McCain in those primaries in which he lost," Steele concluded.
Audio of the exchange was captured by the liberal blog ThinkProgress.