MOUNT VERNON, Ohio -- Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney deviated Wednesday from his usual well-choreographed campaign rally for a flying-without-a-net Oprah-style town hall in which audience members asked questions. The question-and-answer session at the Ariel Corp. manufacturing plant appeared to be a warm-up for next week’s presidential debate between Republican nominee Romney and President Barack Obama. The debate will use a town-hall format with an inquisitor audience.
Through seven questions from a friendly sparring partner of an audience at the manufacturing plant, which makes natural gas compressors, Romney carried a microphone among listeners and touched on the key themes of his campaign – repealing the Affordable Care Act, taking China to task over its currency and trade tactics, cutting taxes and blasting Obama as weak on foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.
“We have to have a strategy in the Middle East and other parts of the world so that we are helping shape events as opposed to just living at the mercy of events,” said the former Massachusetts governor. “That doesn’t mean sending in troops or dropping bombs, but it does mean actively participating in a place like Syria to assure that (President Bashar) Assad goes and reasonable and responsible government follows.”
But one question showed the potential danger of the town-hall format for a candidate. When a man asked Romney whether he would have vetoed “Section 1021 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act,” which “gives the president the explicit power to detain, via the armed forces, any person, including us, U.S. citizens, for an indefinite period of time without trial,” the candidate paused.
The questioner was referring to bill passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama in December 2011 that allows the military to detain terror suspects indefinitely without trial, even if they’re U.S. citizens.
Romney said, “I can assure you when I become president . . . I will not do things that interfere with the rights of our citizens and their freedom,” then sidestepped whether he would have vetoed the bill if he were president.
“As to that specific piece of legislation, I’m happy to look at it, but I don’t believe that this is the time for us to be pulling back from our vigilance to protecting America and keeping us safe from the kinds of threats we face around the word,” he said.
But when Romney was asked in January, during a Republican presidential primary debate in South Carolina, whether he would have signed the National Defense Authorization Act as written, he responded with a firm, “Yes, I would have.”
“And I do believe that it is appropriate to have in our nation the capacity to detain people who are threats to this country, who are members of al Qaida,” he said to a smattering of boos from the Myrtle Beach audience.
Romney only occasionally employs the unpredictable town-hall format, preferring to stick to the well-scripted traditional campaign events, where he usually gives a brisk 15- to 20-minute stump speech.
“We’ve done them before, and we view them as a good opportunity to greet voters and talk to them directly about some of the concerns they have about how important issues are affecting their community,” Kevin Madden, a Romney senior adviser, said of the town halls.