DES MOINES — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney lashed out Friday when quizzed about the flap over a landscaping crew working at his home whose employees included illegal immigrants.
Asked by a reporter as he campaigned in Iowa if, especially given his tough stance on illegal immigration, he should have been more vigilant about the workforce at his home, Romney responded with pointed questions of his own.
"If I go to a restaurant, do I make sure all the waiters there are all legal? How would I do that?" the former Massachusetts governor asked.
He stressed that he has never proposed that homeowners, after they hire a contractor, should "then go out and inquire of the company's employees whether they happen to be legal or not."
Romney, who has frequently criticized his GOP competitors as soft on illegal immigration, had learned previously that illegal immigrants were among the workers tending his home's grounds, raking leaves and clearing debris from his tennis courts.
He fired the landscaping company this week after being contacted by reporters and learning that its crew still included illegal immigrants.
In a statement released by his campaign when the firing was disclosed, Romney said, "I gave the company a second chance with very specific conditions. They were instructed to make sure people working for the company were of legal status. . . . The company's failure to comply with the law is disappointing and inexcusable, and I believe it is important I take this action."
On Friday, he said, "The individuals at my home were not my employees. They were hired by a company. The company made a mistake in judgment, that's why I terminated my relationship with them."
Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman Carrie Giddins took Romney to task in an e-mail to reporters.
"Republicans who have made immigration a central issue in this campaign must be heartened by Mitt Romney's actions," she wrote. "Of course, they are left to ask why Romney simply took the company at its word and never bothered to investigate the legality of the workers on his lawn. It does make you wonder what other things he wouldn't bother to follow up on if he became president and would discover through the newspaper."
Romney's visit to the Des Moines area came as his lead in polls among Republicans in Iowa has vanished.
Romney has spent millions of dollars in the state building an extensive campaign operation and broadcasting ads, but several recent polls showed him either deadlocked or trailing former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee among likely GOP voters in Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses.
His stop in the state was his first public appearance since he gave a closely watched speech Thursday in Texas about religion and politics that touched briefly on his Mormon faith, which some political observers believe has cost him support in Iowa among its large bloc of evangelical voters.
The purpose of the speech, he insisted Friday, was not to woo those voters.
"That's not what the speech was about," Romney said. "The speech was about faith in America, and religious pluralism, the role of faith in America, the need to maintain the religious base of our country, to keep God in the public square. The speech was not about politics."
At least one voter in Iowa said the speech clinched his decision to support Romney.
"It convinced me," said Claude Jones, 66, who was pastor at the Douglas Avenue Presbyterian Church in Des Moines for 23 years. "I don't agree with a lot of his theology, but we're not electing the national pastor."