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Mitt Romney takes some heat

August 12, 2007 | 12:05 pm

The top three finishers in the Iowa straw poll of Republican presidential contenders --- Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback --- reaped immediate benefits from their showings: free air time on the Sunday morning chat shows. But if Romney, who won Saturday's contest in Ames, thought he was simply going to bask in his victory during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," host Chris Wallace disabused him of that notion.

At the start of the interview, Romney was allowed to detail why his win should be seen as a big deal (a contention that remains a bit of a hard sell). Those preliminaries out of the way, Romney got a pretty good grilling on several fronts, including the familiar issue of his reversal on abortion rights, the less familiar topic of his less-than-stellar economic record as Massachusetts' governor and what Wallace aptly termed "the big dog controversy."

Wallace replayed the already widely circulated clips of Romney, during his campaigns for office in Massachusetts, stressing his support for "safe and legal" abortion and his commitment to preserving and protecting "a woman's right to choose."

As he has many times before, and as he will have to many times in the future, Romney made the case that his switch on the issue --- he now strongly opposes abortion rights --- was not a matter of political expediency (i.e., the difference between running in a liberal state and wooing socially conservative Republicans nationwide).

Wallace also threw this at Romney: "Researchers at Northeastern University (in Boston) looked at the economic performance of Massachusetts during the Romney years (2003-07) and said it was one of the worst in the country."

The former governor's initial response: "Well, I've got very different statistics than you do and than they do."

We don't doubt that he does, but politicians generally don't benefit from getting down into the weeds with statisticians. We imagine Romney will be trying out more effective ways to parry such queries as his campaign progresses.

He clearly learned a lesson on one front. ...

Wallace noted that at a campaign stop in Iowa last week, Romney "caused a bit of a stir" when he was asked about the fact that none of his five adult sons had served in the military. As part of his response, Romney said, "One of the ways that my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president."

Asked Wallace: "Can you understand why that answer has upset some people?"

Said Romney: "Oh, I misspoke there."

No kidding.

In perhaps the show's most memorable moment, Wallace revisited a flap that (dare we say it?) dogged Romney in late June: the revelation that during a family vacation years ago, a pet Irish Setter went along ... on top of the car.

Romney quickly defended himself, saying the dog (named Seamus) traveled in a "completely airtight kennel" mounted on the car's roof.

But Wallace would have none of it. "Well, I've got to tell you, Massachusetts law and dog lovers — and I'm one of them — take this seriously" he sniffed. "Massachusetts law prohibits carrying an animal on top of a car, even in a kennel, as cruel and inhuman. Do you really think you did nothing wrong?

Replied Romney: "I wasn't familiar with that in terms of Massachusetts law. Love my dog. ..."

You can check out the complete transcript here.

An attempt at humor involving canines also tripped up Huckabee over the weekend.

The former Arkansas governor has won praise for the wit he frequently displays as a campaigner. But when it was his turn to speak Saturday at the Ames gathering, he hit a sour note right out of the gate.

“A Republican in my state feels about as out of place as Michael Vick at the Westminster dog show,” he quipped.

Not surprisingly, few laughed at the reference to the horrific dog abuse charges pending against the Atlanta Falcons quarterback.

Huckabee's bad taste notwithstanding, he boosted his political prospects with his surprise second-place showing in the straw poll. He talked about the results on CBS' "Face the Nation," while Brownback discussed his third-place showing on ABC's "This Week."

The Times' Michael Finnegan has the complete story on the day's developments after the Ames straw poll here on this website and in Monday's print editions.

-- Don Frederick