Ever since the news of Ric Grenell’s resignation broke, much of the debate — and the subsequent Romney camp damage control — has turned on the question of whether Romney aides did or didn’t push Grenell out in repsonse to anger on the right over the appointment. But even if there was no concerted push — as Romney aides claim — the larger question remains: Why didn’t the Romney campaign stand up to the attacks as they were happening?

The New York Times has a big piece today that confirms some of the pieces in this puzzle. The key nugget: The paper confirms that Romney campaign aides did in fact keep Grenell under wraps out of fear that he’d become a political liability, asking him to remain publicly silent on national security issues — his specialty — at a moment when they were dominating the political conversation. CNN has confirmed the same.

The Times piece also has this:

But those close to Mr. Grenell, known as Ric, insist that when he had sought forceful support from those who had entrusted him with a major role, the campaign seemed to be focused, instead, on quieting a political storm that could detract from Mr. Romney’s message and his appeal to a crucial constituency.
“It’s not that the campaign cared whether Ric Grenell was gay,” one Republican adviser said. “They believed this was a nonissue. But they didn’t want to confront the religious right.”

The sourcing here is murky, and it comes from people close to Grenell, so it could be self-serving. But if this is accurate — and I’m not aware of any evidence to contradict it — this account explains what happened here, and would seem to confirm that this episode was, as even Republican critics have said, a referendum on Romney’s willingness to take on extreme voices within his own party.

* Obama re-elect reality check of the day: A new Quinnipiac poll finds that Romney has caught up with Obama and is now in statistical dead heats with him in Florida (44-43) and Ohio (42-44), while Obama has opened up a sizable lead in Pennsylvania. (fixed)

Worse for Obama, voters think Romney would do a better job on the economy in both Florida (49-40) and Ohio (47-43). Also key: In each of the three swing states, more than 20 percent say they don’t know enough about Romney to say whether they view him favorably — underscoring how much rides on the battle to define him early on.

* Obama campaign intensifies pitch for female vote: The Obama campaign is pivoting off Mitt Romney’s claim yesterday that he would do the “opposite” on the economy to release a new online tool this morning that tries to dramatize exactly what that would mean to individual women.

The tool breaks this down by age, showing the impact Romney’s vow to repeal Obamacare and embrace of Paul Ryan’s budget and plan to end Medicare as we know it would mean to young, middle-aged, and elderly women. It demonstrates both the centrality of the female vote to Obama’s reelection chances and shows that the battle over women will center at least as much on economic issues as on social ones.

* Romney to campaign with McDonnell: The Obama camp’s push for women comes on the same day that Romney is set to campaign in Virginia with Governor Bob McDonnell, who has been at the center of a national battle over a measure that would have required women who want an abortion to undergo an invasive ultrasound procedure. Expect Dems to try to hang the ultrasound battle around Romney’s neck today.

* Next up in the student loan fight: Senate Dems will hold a vote on Monday of their version of the extension of low student loan rates, and this battle will be rejoined in a big way next week. One key question: With Dems and House Republicans still disagreeing over the pay-for, will Romney (who has said he favors the extension in principle) be able to avoid getting drawn further into the dispute?

* About that auto-bailout: General Motors posts $1 billion in profits in the first quarter, defying expecations.

Good thing Obama followed Romney’s advice and embraced that Big Government auto-bailout that Romney decries as representative of everything that’s wrong with Obama’s approach to the economy!

* Gingrich on Romney’s conservatism: Molly Ball highlights some funny, if less than enthusiastic, quotes from Gingrich on the topic of whether Romney is really conservative:

“I’m asked sometimes, ‘Is Mitt Romney conservative?’ And my answer is simple: Compared to Barack Obama?”...

“Now, this is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan,” Gingrich continued. “This is a choice between Mitt Romney and the most radical, leftist president in American history.”

As Ball dryly notes, “this may be the best Romney can hope for.” The question is whether this foreshadows an inability to fully unite the party.

* Can Obama replicate his 2008 performance with rural voters? An interesting point from Tom Curry: Obama is struggling badly among rural voters, and unemployment among them is running higher than the national average. Many rural counties with high unemployment are concentrated in key swing states, and a failure to limit losses among them increases pressure to do better among surburban swing voters.

* And behold the historical rewrite of the day: Truly hilarious: Karl Rove — yes, that Karl Rove — rips into Obama for politicizing the killing of Bin Laden, and actually manages to argue that his own use of 9/11 was apolitical in comparison. A mind-boggling performance.

What else?