Romney talks about faith, ag policy & Straw Poll

I met up with former Massachusetts Governor/GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a Des Moines hotel conference room this morning and asked him questions during an 11 minute-long interview. 

First, I asked Romney a follow-up to an answer he gave at a news conference Saturday afternoon in Des Moines. During an appearance in Pella on Saturday morning, a woman in the crowd of an "Ask Mitt Anything" event asked Romney if during times of crisis he would turn to the Bible or the Book of Mormon.  The follow-up question for Romney on Saturday afternoon was whether he’d deliver a speech about his Mormon religion, similar to one John F. Kennedy did in 1960 about his Catholic faith (JFK said the pope wouldn’t be telling him what to do as president).

This morning, I asked Romney what he remembered of that JFK speech, since he was likely old enough to have been aware of JFK delivering it and I asked whether his family talked about it at the time.

"I remember it being reported on," Romney replied.  "Let’s see.  In 1960, I was 13 years old so it may well have been discussed around the dinner table but it wasn’t a topic that I recall.  It was a speech that he gave after he was the nominee, with only two months to go before the general election.  It was very late in the season and, you know, I’d consider an address on that topic.  I don’t have any current plan for doing that.  Where I go across the country, I find that people are not particularly interested in where someone goes to church.  They want to know what their values are and what they would do to make our country safe, particularly with the news over the weekend about the attacks in England and arresting al Qaida members.  People are much more interested in those issues than they are in someone’s church affiliations, but it may well be a topic of interest that I’ll address at some point."

The next series of questions focused on Romney’s 1994 statements about the USDA and farm subsidies.  Here’s the Radio Iowa story.

I asked Romney about accusations that he’s a "political opportunist."   Here’s Romney’s direct answer:  "I don’t know of anyone who is running for president among the major contenders that hasn’t changed their views over time as the world changes and as the experience gives them greater wisdom.  Senator McCain was opposed to ethanol; now he favors it.  He voted against both Bush tax cuts; now he thinks they should be made permanent.  He has made a number of changes in his position and so has Mayor Giuliani.  Mayor Giuliani fought to end the line item veto and now he’s in favor of the line item veto so we each learn from experience and that’s part of the process."

Earlier this spring, after then-Giuliani campaign consultant Jim Nussle described the Iowa Republican Party’s Straw Poll as a "circus" Romney a few hours later declared that if it’s a cricus, he wants to be "the ringmaster."  The topic came up during our interview.

"Someone came up with that great line?" Romney joked when I mentioned his "ringmaster" declaration.  "Did I say that?" Romney added, laughing.

Romney then laid out some of his campaign schedule between now and August 11th, the date of the Straw Poll and talked not only about the "Ask Mitt Anything" town hall meetings he’s been holding (and plans to hold) around the state.  He also mentioned "telephone town hall" meetings, so Romney is working the phone lines, too.

"I believe in the presidential process….which is not based on ads but is instead based on people getting to know who the candidate is," Romney said.  "…Most Caucus voters will have shaken most candidates’ hands and that’s a good thing.  You learn something about the heart of the person as opposed to just how good their ad agency is."

Romney also said the topic he gets the most questions about on the campaign trail in Iowa is immigration.  "I had a telephone town hall the other day and took 12 questions and I believe four or five were on immigration," he said. 

On the London terror arrests:  "We need to go from reacting and responding to what happened on 9/11 to having a far more comprehensive strategy to…defeat the jihadists."  (He referenced his speech to the American Enterprise Institute.)

I mentioned to Romney that he was the only one of the six candidates who spoke Saturday at the Iowans for Tax Relief/Iowa Christian Alliance forum in Des Moines who said something nice about George W. Bush.

"He’s a good man.  President Bush is motivated entirely by a desire to leave America a better country by virtue of his having been president," Romney said in this morning’s Radio Iowa interview.  "He’s not a perfect man.  No one is and he does his very best, but he is motivated by the right things and what is sometimes forgotten is the number of things he’s done well.  We have a strong economy.  We’re almost taking that as a given.  When he came into being president, we were going into a very serious recession.  We have turned that around.  He has turned that around — his administration has — and built a strong ecomomy and we have a safe nation.  We all expected to be hit after 9/11, again.  There have been attempts to hit America and we have been safe and it’s not that our system is perfect — that’s why I’m calling for a stronger homeland security effort, but he has led with vigilance and care."

"Is it helpful or harmful to have candidates criticize their Republican president?" I asked. 

"I don’t know," Romney replied.  "I think people have to describe where they agree and where they disagree.  I don’t agree with the president on everything he’s done.  I don’t agree with him on every issue.  I don’t agree with him on immigration, so I think it’s up to every one of us to express his own views.  He’s not the flag.  The flag is very different.  We can all get behind that, but each person has their differences or places where we agree with the president.  It’s our job to describe those things, but let’s not presume we disagree with him on everything because we don’t."

I offered Romney a chance to reveal his fundraising numbers.  He laughed then declined to do so.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.