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Anything Goes

By Dana Milbank
Monday, December 10, 2007

Before Mitt Romney arrived to give a stump speech in Des Moines on Friday, his aides covered the windows with blue curtains. When that failed to block enough sunlight, they taped campaign signs to the windowpanes.

It was a sensible precaution: Much of what Romney says can't stand up to the light of day.

At Friday's event, the candidate tried to argue that the major speech that he had delivered Thursday about his Mormon faith had absolutely nothing to do with politics.

"That's not what the speech was about," the former governor of Massachusetts said, indignantly.

"What was it about, sir?" a questioner asked. "The speech was about faith in America," Romney asserted, "not about politics."

"But it is a political season, sir," the questioner pointed out.

"Then you got to get together with the political pundits," came Romney's angry reply.

The questions continued along these lines until an aide hustled the candidate out of harm's way: "Gotta catch a plane, Governor." Even that was a stretch: The campaign has a chartered plane, so it never leaves without Romney.

Romney has shown impressive versatility on the campaign trail, adopting new positions as he goes along on abortion, gay rights and immigration. This flexibility also makes him an exciting candidate: He seems willing to say just about anything.

At one moment in his speech in Des Moines, he placed former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres in a nonexistent "Liberal Party." Another moment, the 60-year-old Romney introduced the scientific impossibility that he is "getting a little closer . . . in age" to former president George H.W. Bush, who is 83.

As if to complement Romney's fanciful themes, an on-the-fritz toy snowman, on a mantel in the back of the room, began to sing Christmas songs at the exact moment the candidate started talking.

Romney ignored it and instead sang an ode to the 40th president. "Ronald Reagan was commissioned a second lieutenant right here in Fort Des Moines," he said at the start, mentioning the Gipper half a dozen times in the brief speech. He split the rest of his time between caricatures (the Democrats "take their inspiration from the Europe of old, with big government, big taxes and Big Brother") and cliches ("One of the great sources of our freedom is the strength and character of the American people").

Social and economic issues got a passing mention, but the bulk of Romney's attention went to the need to beat "violent jihadists" by increasing military spending and troop numbers. "If we make sure that we're a strong nation in our economy, in our homes and in our military, we will become an even stronger nation," he said at the end of a speech in which he used the words "strong" or "strengthen" dozens of times.

After the speech, CNN's Dana Bash asked him to square his tough-on-immigration stance with his repeatedly allowing "contractors to be at your house who clearly have illegal immigrants working for them."

"I have certainly never proposed that homeowners have a responsibility," he wiggled.

Somebody asked whether Romney's assertion that "freedom requires religion" meant that a nonbeliever "can't be a free person."

"Of course not," he folded.

Another reporter, citing Romney's praise for "sacrifice" in his speech, asked which "specific sacrifices" he favors.

"Work hard in school, do our very best," Romney answered.

"Those are things people do in peacetime," the questioner pointed out. "What would you ask for in this time of war?"

"Next question," Romney replied.

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