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Romney's sons serve their candidate

August 8, 2007 |  6:32 pm

In his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney hasn't been shy about spotlighting his picture-perfect family (he's been married to his high school sweetheart for 38 years; the couple has five grown sons and 10 grandchildren). Today in Iowa, however, he responded to a pointed question about his kids with an answer that may have been too glib and likely won't be recycled.

At an "Ask Mitt Anything" breakfast in Bettendorf, a foe of the Iraq war posed a question that drew attention to the fact that none of Romney's sons, who range in age from 37 to 26, served in the military. She wondered if any planned to enlist.

The former Massachusetts governor, who in his opening comments had urged a "surge of support" for U.S. troops in Iraq, at first coolly deflected the query's thrust. It appeared he would escape politically unscathed. But as so often happens to even the most-seasoned politician, he stumbled when he couldn't resist the urge to keep talking.

"It’s remarkable how we can show our support for our nation and one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected, because they think I’d be a great president," he said, perhaps a bit facetiously. We're unsure about that, because he felt the urge to provide more detail: "My son, Josh, bought the family Winnebago and has visited 99 counties, most of them with his three kids and his wife." The five brothers keep a regular campaign blog.

His first line was greeted with some laughter. But it earned him a lead on an Associated Press story wrapping up a busy campaign day in Iowa that couldn't have made his campaign very happy: "Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Wednesday defended his five sons’ decision not to enlist in the military, saying they’re showing their support for the country by "helping me get elected.”

His words also earned him the scorn ...

of the questioner, Rachel Griffiths. Asked later if Romney's response satisfied her, she said, “Of course not. He told me the way his son shows support for our military and our nation is to buy a Winnebago and ride across Iowa and help him get elected.”

You can read the entire dispatch here.

We've got to give credit to Romney's staff, which has been notable for its well-honed skills --- shortly after the AP story appeared, it valiantly sought to put a better spin on the encounter.

Campaign press secretary Kevin Madden sent an e-mail to reporters that included a YouTube video of the exchange, as well as a written transcript. Madden's opening sentence: "While holding yet another town hall in eastern Iowa today, Romney, while responding to a question from an audience member, took the opportunity to praise the dedication and sacrifice of the men and women of the U.S. military."

Indeed he did. As we mentioned, he had gotten off to a good start in parrying Griffiths' question.

"Well, the good news is that we have a volunteer army and that's the way we're going to keep it," he began, sparking some applause. He continued: "My sons are all adults and they've made their decisions about their careers and they've chosen not to serve in the military and active duty. I respect their decision in that regard."

He then lauded those who do serve before veering off on a harmless tangent about his niece and the help she received from neighbors after her husband, a National Guard member, was called up for duty. Unfortunately for Romney, that caused him to segue to his sons.

His stop in Bettendorf ("A Premier City," its website proclaims) was the first of many for Romney today as he seeks an impressive first-place finish in the Iowa GOP's straw poll Saturday in Ames. That he will win is a foregone conclusion; with rivals Rudy Giuliani and John McCain taking a pass on the contest and Fred Thompson remaining above the fray as an unofficial candidate, Romney is vying against several candidates who are struggling simply to establish a toehold in the Republican race.

The Ames' results may end the campaigns of one, two, perhaps more of these bottom-tier White House hopefuls. Romney is counting on a boost from the straw poll. But as he contemplates the long haul, he also might want to focus a little more intently on his off-the-cuff remarks.

-- Don Frederick