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WASHINGTON (MCT)-- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney backed away from comments he made during a debate Wednesday night suggesting he supported California's attempt to set global-warming gas limits on cars and trucks -- something the Detroit auto industry has fought for years.

Environmental groups hailed the rest of the Republican presidential contenders for backing the limits.

California and 19 other states want to force automakers to meet strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks that would translate to roughly 40.5 miles per gallon by 2016. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency denied California's request for a go-ahead on the limits, and officials from several states, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have responded by suing the EPA.

The auto industry has fought the state rules, saying they could force automakers to stop selling certain models, twist the industry to make unprofitable changes and create a menagerie of rules rather than one federal standard.

While campaigning during Michigan's primary in January, Romney, whose father George Romney ran American Motors, talked up his roots in the auto industry and criticized new fuel economy standards, saying the 35 miles-per-gallon target by 2020 passed by Congress in December "dropped yet another anvil on Michigan."

During the Wednesday night debate in Simi Valley, Calif., candidates were asked whether they supported the California law. After Sen. John McCain said that he did, Romney said: "I side with states to be able to make their own regulations with regards to emissions within their own states."

Romney then was asked if he backed California in the dispute.

"I side with states being able to make their own decisions, even if I don't always agree with the decisions they make," he said.

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But after the debate, Romney's campaign released a statement saying that although he favored state regulations for some pollutants, carbon dioxide wasn't on the list.

"When Michigan makes the same cars and trucks regardless of whether they are bound for California, Vermont or (even) Massachusetts, it makes more sense to have one set of federal rules to address CO2 emissions from vehicles rather than a patchwork of different state regulations," Romney said in the statement.

Environmentalists called that a reversal and out of step with the Republican field.

"If there were a gold medal for flip-flops, Mitt Romney would win it with a perfect 10," said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

One of the states adopting the California rules is Massachusetts, which did so when Romney was governor. In January 2006, his administration touted the California standards as a "significant step in cleaning our air." Romney aides have said the move was required by state law, but Romney did not oppose the rules publicly.

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(c) 2008, Detroit Free Press.

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