As a presidential contender, Mitt Romney has the looks, the money and the campaign machine. He also has something of a candor gap.
When confronted with questions that might conflict with his message of the day or political record, the Republican candidate has shown a tendency to bob and weave or simply dismiss history. He has done so all year, providing an easy target for his opponents.
“If you aren’t being honest in obtaining the job, can we trust you if you get the job?” Romney rival Mike Huckabee asked on Sunday during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
This past week, Romney did it again over questions about whether he was planning to air negative ads — in particular on the subject of illegal immigration — against John McCain. The Arizona senator has been surging in New Hampshire, where Romney is angling for back-to-back victories after a hoped-for win in this week’s Iowa caucuses.
“I haven’t made any decisions on what issue ads might come forward, down the road, but those aren’t what we shot today,” Romney told reporters on Wednesday. “What we shot today was just me to camera.”
On Friday, his campaign went on TV with a new commercial, a so-called contrast ad that did not feature Romney speaking, but a narrator comparing his record to McCain’s on immigration and tax matters. On Saturday, the campaign announced a second spot, focused entirely on McCain’s immigration record. In between Romney also released a third commercial, criticizing Huckabee for increasing spending and pardoning criminals while he was governor of Arkansas.
The ads Romney mentioned to reporters — the “closing arguments” in which he speaks directly to Iowa and New Hampshire voters — have yet to air.
Statements from his campaign accused McCain of initiating the negative ads with personal criticisms of Romney, as well as a mailer to New Hampshire voters attacking Romney’s own immigration record.
“Senator McCain has a troubling history of neglecting substantive issues and getting personal in his attacks against those who happen to disagree with him,” said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. “It’s the McCain way.”
Romney started the year with a similar example of candor deficiency.
On Jan. 8, when he staged a “National Call Day” to kickoff his campaign, he called a news conference to herald his unprecedented one-day take of $6.5 million. When the multimillionaire was asked whether he might spend his own money on his campaign, Romney said that scenario “would be akin to a nightmare,” since he was relying on popular support for his campaign. He added that he reserved the right to donate, though.
In reality, Romney had already donated to his political committee at the time of the question. A campaign finance report he released in mid-April revealed he contributed a $2.35 million check by the time of his “nightmare” comment, starting the prior October.
He has gone on to loan a total of $17.35 million to his committee, although the total could be more. His next report won’t be made public until the end of January.
As the year has progressed, there have been more examples, not just of artsy language, but of ignorance of or embellishments about his personal and political history.
In April, Romney said, “I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life,” only to have aides reveal he had gone hunting only twice at the bookends of his life: once, during a summer visit to an Idaho ranch as a 15-year-old, and again, in 2006, when he participated in a big-donor excursion to a Georgia game preserve on behalf of the Republican Governors Association.
A subsequent check with state officials revealed no hunting license for Romney in any of the three states where he has homes, and Romney himself later confirmed he did not own any guns. The ones in his house, which he had mentioned publicly, were owned by his son Josh.
More recently, Romney told a national television audience on Dec. 16 that he had been endorsed by the NRA while running for governor in 2002.
A day after his appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Romney told reporters that he had checked with the gun-rights group “and they said, ‘Well, we didn’t give you the official endorsement,’ but they phone-banked members … in Massachusetts, encouraging them to support my candidacy, so it was, if you will, a support phone bank, which is not an official endorsement.”
The hunting gaffe in particular has provided easy shots for other candidates. “I don’t go around saying I was lifelong golfer because I once rode in a golf cart when I was eight years old,” Huckabee said, adding that, “You are not going to hear me making up stuff about my biography.”
In his new ads against McCain, Romney also looks past his own record on tax cut and immigration matters.
He criticizes McCain for twice voting against Bush administration tax cuts, although while governor at the time, Romney told members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation he “won’t be a cheerleader” for proposals he did not agree with. “But I have to keep a solid relationship with the White House,” The Boston Globe reported in 2003.
Similarly, Romney accuses McCain of backing an immigration bill this year that provided “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, even though it required them to pay fines and stand in line with legal immigrants if they wanted to become citizens.
Romney bases his criticism on the bill’s inclusion of a so-called “Z” visa that, once obtained, would have allowed illegals to remain indefinitely if they did not pursue citizenship. Among the bill’s backers was his party leader, President Bush.
Yet in March 2006, Romney sounded sympathetic to the idea of integrating illegals into U.S. society.
“I don’t believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country,” Romney told The Sun of Lowell, Mass. “(T)hose that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards application for citizenship, as they would from their home country.”
Glen Johnson has reported on state, local and national politics since 1985. He covers Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign for The Associated Press.