Spokespeople are supposed to help candidates out of tight spots. In quitting Mitt Romney’s campaign before he even started working, foreign policy flack Richard Grenell managed to stick his candidate into one.

The former Massachusetts governor is now forced to insist that he didn’t fire an aide for his sexuality, an assertion that could jeopardize his already shaky relationship with the religious right.

Romney speaks at a campaign stop in Portsmouth, Va., on May 3. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

In a series of appeareances today, Romney and his top aides sought to beat back the storyline that Grenell’s sexuality — and social conservatives’ unhappiness — influenced him in any way.

“He’s a very accomplished spokesperson, and we select people not based upon their ethnicity or their sexual preference or their gender but upon their capability,” Romney told Fox News Friday morning.

“Of course, there were voices of intolerance that expressed themselves during this debate,” Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom added on MSNBC. “That was unfortunate. Mitt Romney has confronted those voices of intolerance.”

He was referring to a social conservative summit late last year, at which Romney made an oblique reference to the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, saying that “one of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line,” and “poisonous language does not advance our cause.”

Fischer was one of the loudest voices criticizing Grenell’s hiring. But Fischer has also made disparaging remarks about Mormonism, and so it’s not clear that Romney was pushing back on anti-gay intolerance in particular.

And now Romney risks a backlash from social conservatives for defending Grenell.

“Ask your Christian leader trying to get you to vote for Romney if he agrees with Romney campaign that Christians are ‘voices of intolerance,’” tweeted conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace — one of 17 missives on the subject.

And, it is worth noting that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the leading voice for social conservatives in the Republican presidential race, has yet to endorse Romney. (The two men met in Pittsburgh today.)

Grenell’s resignation letter suggested that social conservatives were responsible for his decision to quit the Romney campaign just a few weeks after his hiring. (He is openly gay and an outspoken advocate for same-sex marriage.)

While he thanks Romney for “his clear message to me that being openly gay was a non-issue for him and his team,” Grenell said his ability to do his job was “greatly diminished by the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues.”

According to the New York Times, Grenell chafed at being told to lay low while the furor from social conservatives died down. 

“The campaign deserves more credit for hiring Ric even though they fumbled the execution, but now they will be under real pressure to prove that Mitt Romney is not anti-gay to an American voting public that is increasingly intolerant of discrimination,” said Log Cabin Republicans President R. Clarke Cooper in a statement.

Meanwhile, Mother Jones is writing that an ex-Romney aide said she was fired in 2004 for being gay.

The vast majority of Republicans who preferred another candidate plan to vote for Romney. But the candidate has long done a delicate dance on gay rights; Grenell’s resignation highlights the awkwardness of his position.