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Romney campaign calls reporter restrictions a staff 'error'

May 16, 2012|By Maeve Reston
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hands out an autographed campaign button after speaking at a campaign stop in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney… (Mary Altaffer / AP Photo )

TAMPA, Fla. — Throughout the Republican primaries this year, no other campaign came close to approaching the message discipline and efficiency of Mitt Romney’s campaign. But campaign aides took that approach to a new level on Wednesday in Florida when several aides tried to forcibly block reporters from approaching the candidate on the rope line.

As Romney wrapped up his remarks about the national debt and walked off the stage to shake hands with voters along the rope line, as is his custom, reporters who headed toward him were blocked by several volunteers and a Romney aide who spread her arms wide and said reporters could not walk freely within the event space as members of the public were allowed to do.

Though reporters went through the same security sweeps as guests at the event, the aide insisted that reporters who moved beyond “the press pen” — a cordoned-off area surrounded by metal barricades — would not be allowed any closer to the candidate without a Romney staff escort. When a television reporter asked for a campaign escort to film Romney’s interaction with voters, the campaign refused.

The instruction from campaign aides did not appear to be related to any security issue and was not at the direction of the U.S. Secret Service, which is charged with protecting the candidate and overseeing the security checks on every person entering a Romney event.  In an email, a spokesman for the Secret Service said the agency “does not restrict movement of the press into a general public area or their movement within the general public area.”

When asked for an explanation of the new restrictions, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said “this was an error on the part of the campaign staff and volunteers.  We have reminded them that press is allowed on the rope line to record the governor’s interactions with voters.” But at an event on Friday in Charlotte, two campaign volunteers on either ends of the factory where Romney had appeared tried to block reporters from getting near the candidate on the rope line and said they were doing so at the direction of the campaign.

The Romney campaign has tightly controlled access to the candidate for many months. Recently they have restricted his one-on-one interviews mainly to local television outlets in swing states, conservative talk-radio shows, friendly appearances on Fox and the occasional morning show. During the primaries, Romney often took questions from voters in a town hall format. But since he has wrapped up the Republican nomination, those sorts of freewheeling appearances have been more limited.

He took a few questions from the press at a firehouse in New York City during an appearance with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York on May 1, and on May 9 in Oklahoma City to respond to President Obama’s announcement that he was shifting his position on gay marriage. His last press conference was on April 23 during a visit with Marco Rubio to Pennsylvania.

Reporters are also kept at a far distance from President Obama, who has a much higher level of Secret Service protection than Romney, but who also was never as open with press access as other candidates like 2008 Republican nominee John McCain. The Secret Service also began protecting Obama early during the Democratic primary campaign, an adjustment that immediately creates greater distance from voters and the press.

But on a recent day in Reno, Obama was shaking hands close enough to the press area to hear and answer a question from CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller, who asked him about his recent basketball game with George Clooney.

While Romney’s aides have been intent on keeping him on message, the candidate has not appeared bothered by questions on the rope line. While he often ignores shouted questions, he has also answered them from time to time — including after an Obama advisor said it was unclear whether Romney would have ordered the killing of Osama Bin Laden as the president did.

“Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order,” Romney told reporters while signing autographs after a late April event in Portsmouth, N.H.

Because Romney’s press conferences are few and far between, rope lines are sometimes the only venue when he has responded to the news. It was in that setting that he offered his first on-camera remarks about the killing of Trayvon Martin, and responded to the controversy over radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh calling a Georgetown law student who testified on birth control access “a slut.”  (“It’s not the language I would have used,” Romney told reporters during that exchange in Ohio.)

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