MAULDIN, S.C.—Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stepped gingerly Friday around the fallout from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s big debate gaffe in Michigan, saying he tried to offer his rival a verbal prompt, but adding that he’s more concerned about avoiding mistakes of his own rather than the performance of others.
The former Massachusetts governor also used the occasion of Veterans Day to criticize President Obama for his handling of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He asserted that Obama should have found a way to negotiate a continued troop presence in Iraq and that the administration’s timetable for withdrawing the surge troops from Afghanistan is hasty and politically motivated.
Romney spoke with reporters after talking with a group of veterans at Mutt’s BBQ restaurant on Friday afternoon. Asked about Perry’s “oops moment” Wednesday night, he noted that he had he mentioned the Environmental Protection Agency as a way to prompt the Texas governor’s frozen memory. But he added:
“Most times in these debates I’m concentrating on my own performance and my own mistakes, and I can think of a few and I’m not going to rehearse them for you.”
He laughed at that, but went on to say, “I’m more concerned about my own than anybody else’s.” He said he wished Perry well in the GOP race and noted that there will be many more debate opportunities ahead for all the candidates.
“He and I both have a lot of time to get our message across in the best way we can,” he said.
Romney was also asked about the rise of Newt Gingrich in recent polls but declined to say whether he saw the former House speaker as a true threat or to handicap the race. “You know my responsibility is to go out and tell people why I think I should be the guy that leads the country,” he said. “Why my background and experience in the private sector and in government is unique and why my vision for America is the right vision.”
He said he expects there will be competition for the nomination and hopes to be one of the finalists, but said he could not predict who among his rivals might rise to the top. “Whether it’s Newt or Rick [Perry] or Rick Santorum or Herman Cain, I can’t tell at this point, but again, I’m going to focus on my job and my message. And if that connects with people, great. And if, not, if they want someone else, that’s fine too.”
During his roundtable discussion, Romney heard repeated examples of frustration with the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration and an emotional plea for presidential help in lifting the morale and spirits of members of the military and their families, veterans and the country as a whole.
Romney said the president owes it to the American people to deliver regular reports and explanations of why the country is at war. “One of the things that I think has been sorely lacking in our nation as we’ve been at war these last many years is a constant reminder to the American people that we are at war and that people are making huge sacrifice… Today it’s almost out of sight, out of mind.”
Romney also told the veterans that, even as he would sharply reduce government spending, he would spare the Defense Department any serious cuts, other than in areas of waste. Any savings in those areas, he said, would be plowed back into the military and veterans’ budgets. “I will not look to the military to balance the budget,” he said.
On Iraq, he said the decision by Obama to bring all U.S. forces home from Iraq by the end of the year was “more than unfortunate. It’s tragic.” He said he hoped the Iraqis could quickly “pick up the baton” and that any risk of renewed violence could be contained.
On Afghanistan, he said he agrees with the long-term timetable that calls for withdrawal of U.S. forces by 2014 but argued that the president had allowed political considerations to dictate the decision to remove the so-called surge troops by next September. He said Obama should have listened to military commanders who wanted those troops left in place for three more months.