Reporters on the Romney bus are starved for drama. Mike Huckabee invites the press to watch his haircuts. John McCain fires at will from the back of the Straight Talk Express, with no aides in sight. But Romney's campaign is a machine, logging the maximum numbers of miles and pausing only so that the candidate can pop out and deliver the same speech, over and over and over again. Journalists' only access to the former Massachusetts governor is usually restricted to a single daily press availability, which is conducted with a handler ever-present at his side.
So it's not hard to see why a hastily assembled appearance at a Columbia, S.C., Staples store has attracted so much interest among the Romney press corps.
Romney was in the midst of his usual spiel about his plans to shake up Washington, drawing a contrast between himself and longtime Arizona Sen. John McCain. "It's time for Washington Republicans and Democrats to have a leader that will fight to make sure we resolve the issues rather than continuously look for partisan opportunities for score settling and for opportunities to link closer to lobbyists," Romney began. "I don't have lobbyists running my campaign. I don't have lobbyists that are tied to my …"
Suddenly, Romney was interrupted by Glen Johnson, an indignant Associated Press reporter, who said, "That is not true, governor, that is not true. Ron Kaufman is a lobbyist." A noticeably flustered Romney shot back, "Did you hear what I said? Did you hear what I said? ... I said I don't have lobbyists running my campaign. He's not running my campaign." What followed was a tense back-and-forth during which Romney almost insultingly downplayed the relevance of Kaufman, a longtime friend and former political director for Bush 41's White House who happens to be a lobbyist and a Romney senior adviser. Kaufman is nothing more than an unpaid adviser, one of many, Romney said. The campaign is run by Beth Myers, he added.
For reporters who have spent the past several weeks being spun by Kaufman—a near-constant presence on the Romney plane—and watched him huddle with top staff and family before major speeches, it was a hard pill to swallow. The AP reporter dug in, asking whether Romney meant to suggest Kaufman is nothing more than "just a potted plant on your plane."
"He's an adviser like many others," Romney said. "I appreciate that you think that's funny, but Ron Kaufman has not been in the senior strategy meetings of our campaign. Excuse me," Romney continued, talking over a question from another reporter, "he has not been in the senior strategy meetings of our campaign." A debate about Kaufman's presence in debate sessions and whether those constitute strategy meetings ensued. Romney once again sought to mount his no-lobbyists line: "Somebody doesn't put the kind of financial resources that I have put into this campaign and the personal resources I have put into this campaign in order to do favors for lobbyists." And then, a peevish Romney aide cut the press conference short.
Romney posed for a picture or two with some star-struck South Carolina voters—then made a beeline for the AP reporter. "Listen to my words, alright? Listen to my words." Seconds later, Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's traveling press secretary, took the AP reporter aside and scolded him for being "argumentative with the candidate" and asked him to "act professionally." Fehrnstrom also said, "Save your opinions," prompting the reporter to say, "It's not an opinion. It's a documentable fact." A feisty South Carolina voter joined the fray, telling the reporter, "I think you're rude."
Minutes later, aboard a chartered plane set to take the candidate, his staff and a suddenly invigorated press corps on to Nevada, Romney again approached the reporter, vowing to "explain to you the campaign structure, how it works." Afterward, a Romney spokesman sought to clarify the situation. "Rick Davis is a lobbyist. He's running John McCain's campaign," said Fehrnstrom. "Ron Kaufman is the longtime national committeeman from Massachusetts. He is a friend of the candidate. He is not paid, and he does not run Mitt Romney's campaign, and he does not participate in senior strategy meetings." There was much to think about on the way to Vegas, like how many news stories about Romney and lobbyists lie ahead, how many clicks the viral video would get—and whether anyone watching would care as voters render crucial decisions in Nevada and South Carolina this Saturday.