People line up for a Mitt Romney fundraiser in Wilson, Wyo., hosted by former… (Evan Vucci, Associated…)
WILSON, Wyo. — On the campaign trail over the last year, there are two names that Mitt Romney almost never mentions: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
That approach got tricky on Thursday as Romney brought his campaign to Cheney's home near Jackson Hole, where the former Massachusetts governor mingled with deep-pocketed donors at a country club with views of the towering Grand Tetons in the distance. The private reception for more than 200 donors was followed by a smaller, more intimate dinner at Cheney's house.
The legacy of Bush's administration — the Iraq war, the increase in the federal debt burden and the nation's spiral into recession at the end of 2008 — cast a long shadow over the last presidential contest and was a major factor in John McCain's loss to Barack Obama.
Because of the unpopularity of Bush and Cheney, Romney has kept his distance — never appearing publicly with either man during his 2012 campaign. Though both leaders are admired by many in the Republican Party base, any perception of closeness with Romney could be harmful as the unofficial Republican nominee seeks to draw in independent and moderate voters. (A pool of reporters was allowed into the country club event, but media photos of Cheney and Romney together were not permitted.)
Romney arrived shortly after 5 p.m. and greeted Cheney on the back porch of the clubhouse with a handshake. Donors, who had flown in from around the country, waited to take pictures with Romney in front of a blue background with the U.S. flag and the flag of Wyoming. The events were expected to raise more than $4 million.
Cheney praised Romney from the event's stage by alluding to the four Republican administrations he'd served in, most recently as vice president.
"So I've some strong feelings about what we need in a president, about how difficult the job is and the kind of challenges a president has to deal with," Cheney said. "Looking back and reflecting on that, I think there's only one man to be president of the United States who meets those requirements, and that's Gov. Mitt Romney."
Romney's visit did not draw much attention here in reliably red Wyoming, where Cheney grew up in nearby Casper. A handful of protesters stood on the nearby Teton Pass Highway. One man, wearing a Darth Vader mask, held a sign with an arrow pointing in the direction of Cheney's house that said "Dinner on the Titanic." Another protester's sign pointed the "1%" toward the golf complex and the "99%" toward an entrance to Grand Teton National Park.
But national Democratic groups pilloried Romney for appearing with the former vice president, circulating memos to reporters suggesting that Romney — who has only released one year of tax returns — was taking tips on secrecy from the former vice president.
"This Cheney fundraiser is a good time to remind the American people: Let's not go back to the years when people acted like they were entitled to run the government and keep secrets and the American people are not permitted to know what is going on," Rep.Henry A. Waxmanof Beverly Hills said in a phone call arranged for reporters.
"That's not the way our government is supposed to function," he said.
Though Romney generally does not mention the Bush-Cheney administration in his speeches — except to say that the recession did not begin under President Obama, but that he made it worse — he has welcomed the support of the far more popular former PresidentGeorge H.W. Bush.
The elder Bush hosted Romney at his presidential library for his 2007 speech on faith in America, and called him a "good man" who would "make a great president" during an endorsement in March at his office. (His wife, former First LadyBarbara Bush,has also helped Romney, defending him during the primaries when other rivals attacked and recording calls on his behalf before voting in Vermont and Ohio.)
The spotlight that the Romney campaign sought to put on the elder Bush's support stood in contrast to Romney's somewhat accidental endorsement by George W. Bush earlier this year, when he curtly said "I'm for Mitt Romney" after being caught by ABC News on his way into an elevator.
Still, many of Romney's aides worked in the Bush administration as well as in the upper ranks of the Republican National Committee, including advisors Ed Gillespie, Kevin Madden, Dan Senor and rumored potential vice presidential nominee Rob Portman. Top Romney strategists Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer also advised Bush. Bush education advisor Margaret Spellings joined Romney's campaign for a time, but has since left.
Romney has not entirely hidden his admiration for the former vice president. When asked at a town hall in Arizona last year who his potential running mate would be, Romney said that whether one agreed with Cheney or not, he was "a man of wisdom and judgment" and there was no question that he could step into the shoes of the president — which Romney says is his top criterion for his own choice.