“GOP front-runner Mitt Romney speaks Wednesday at 49′er hotel in Jackson”/photos by Gil Brady
JACKSON, Wyo. — Republican Mitt Romney became the second White House hopeful to visit Wyoming and attend fundraisers in as many days, arriving here Wednesday afternoon for a standing-room-only gathering in a humid motel conference room.
Late the night before, Democratic presidential candidate and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson attended a Jackson fundraiser before jetting off to Nevada the same evening.
On Wednesday, some 50 to 75 people sat or stood inside and outside the 49’er motel conference room as Romney, immaculately groomed in a pinstriped dress shirt with French cuffs and links, took the small, makeshift stage aside flags of the United States and Wyoming.
“The civilized world and America is in a perilous situation and is under attack” by “radical jihadists” who want to drag it “back to the 8th and 7th centuries,” Romney said as flashbulbs popped amid his paces, pauses and gestures at the tightly-packed crowd of supporters, detractors and hungry media.
The former Massachusetts governor is coming off a win in Iowa’s straw poll in a narrow field absent two of his GOP presidential rivals, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Seemingly untouched by the stuffy air, Romney did not sweat as he took swipes at leading Democratic presidential contenders, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, while stressing the importance of strong family values, including marriage before children, energy independence, increasing the military by 100,000 troops, and support for President Bush’s surge policy in Iraq.
If either were elected president, Romney said Obama and Clinton would take America “on a leftward turn” at a dangerous time in world history. He did not, however, specify why if proven true either would necessarily make the nation unsafe.
While taking questions from the audience, a man, who later identified himself as Ted Ladd, stood up and grilled Romney about his record as governor of Massachusetts – alleging he left the state with $50 billion in under-funded liability and deferred maintenance for such public works as state parks and the Boston-to-Cambridge train line.
“You’re informed, but misinformed,” Romney responded while defending his gubernatorial record and polishing his conservative fiscal credentials. “We had a $3 billion budget gap when I came in. While I was governor, every year we created a surplus. We had more requests (for spending) every year than money spent.”
Before taking questions from the press on Wyoming’s gangbuster pace of energy development, foreign policy views and immigration, Romney heard from the mother of a Marine, on his third tour of duty in Iraq, who asked what Romney had to say to her.
Upon thanking the Marine’s mother for her son’s service, Romney began querying her, with the probing nature of a mind reader, about her son’s tour. The mother soon volunteered that her son supported the mission in Iraq.
“It’d be nice if there was a surge of support for (the) troops,” Romney told her as loud applause erupted from the breathless crowd. Before ending his speech, Romney made clear he did not support a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, believing it could ignite regional chaos and civil war.
Regarding the role of religion in Middle East foreign policy, and whether as a Mormon he supported President Bush’s assumption that “freedom is God’s gift to humanity,” Romney said: “The value of the Judeo-Christian ethic is, all people are equal in worth.”
Whether the “Book of Mormon” would as president influence his foreign-policy decisions, Romney said he didn’t think any part of the book departed with the values of western culture. He also did not subscribe to any one book informing his thinking. Ultimately, Romney stressed he believed that “all people are sons and daughters of God.”
Though he supports President Bush’s “surge strategy,” Romney did criticize U.S. policymakers for mistakes in Iraq. As president, he did not say Wednesday that he would end the war.
Asked about the current gangbuster pace of energy extraction on Wyoming’s federal lands, including whether development on such habitats as the Wyoming Range and its corridors should be permanently banned, Romney said he was “not sufficiently informed” on the plight of wildlife there. But, he added, his plan to get America “energy independent, by increasing oil, gas, nuclear, and liquid coal development,” should be done in an environmentally sound manner.
Earlier Wednesday, in an Associated Press interview in Reno, Nev., Romney took a strong states’ rights stance on Western issues of water, mining and public lands, saying he’s against “heavy-handed” intrusion by the federal government.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently promised to fight construction of any coal-fired power plants in Nevada, but Romney said: “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
“We need to become an energy-independent nation. Coal is a major source of energy for this nation,” Romney said, adding that a better course would be to “insist on clean-burning technologies.”
Romney has ranked coal alongside ethanol, biofuels and nuclear energy as alternatives to foreign oil.
Before leaving, the top-tier Republican candidate denounced America’s “sanctuary cities” where law enforcement ignores illegal immigrants. He also disagreed with Bush’s belief that illegal aliens were here doing jobs “Americans didn’t want to do.” And he opposed amnesty or pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants that excluded “getting in the back of the line” to obtain lawful visas or citizenship.
According to the latest Zogby poll, Iowa GOP voters favor Romney by 33 percent, opening his lead over his closest rival, Rudy Giuliani, by 19 points.
Former Republican state legislator Clarene Law, whom Romney called “Charlene” when he thanked her for hosting Wednesday’s press conference at one of her motels, said she supported Romney’s proven leadership during the Olympics in Salt Lake City and cherished his family values and successes in academia, business and as a former governor.
At roughly $72,000 raised to date, Romney leads all presidential takers inside Teton County and was headed for a scheduled $1,000- to-$2,300-a-head fundraiser Wednesday evening at the Lazy Moose Ranch in Wilson.
An invitation for the event noted that for $2,300 donors could get a snapshot with the photogenic candidate.
Organizers said they expected at least 100 to 140 people to attend the event, which could put Romney over the $200,000 mark in money raised in Teton County alone.
Late Tuesday night, Richardson, one of eight Democrats vying for that party’s nomination for president, entered the Cowboy State by chartered jet.
Before jumping into a black SUV that whisked him off to a fundraiser of about 35 guests at the Jackson home of art dealer Gerald Peters, Richardson fielded a question about why locals should consider him and his alternative energy proposals.
“I believe Wyoming has enormous potential to get 2,000 percent of its power from wind,” Richardson said while standing on the gusty, mountain shrouded tarmac. “It’s got the resources. Its budget, like New Mexico’s, is in good shape.”
The candidate added he believed greenhouse gas emissions were “threatening Yellowstone’s ecosystem,” and he advocated policies to convert coal usage and production to cleaner methods. He also said the United States and Wyoming had to strike a balance between fossil fuels and clean energy to remain competitive with Japan.
During last Sunday’s televised Iowa debate, Richardson, in keeping with many Democrats running for president, said he thought prayer was an important but private matter unlikely to alter the course of big events. If elected, Richardson said he would not wear his Catholic faith on his sleeve.
New Mexico’s governor has told national audiences that he supports a balance between traditional and new energy forms, telling NBC newsman Tim Russert in a recent broadcast of “Meet the Press” that “I’m not against oil production. I strongly favor renewable energy, and I believe the oil companies, you know, should not get the tax breaks they’re getting.”