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Romney careful to stick to campaign script, keeping reporters at arms' length
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) ' Mitt Romney is trying harder than ever these days to stay on script ' and keep his traveling national press corps at arms' length.
The latest clash came Wednesday when aides to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee blocked the reporters who cover Romney daily from asking him questions at the "rope line" separating him and his supporters.
It all began after Romney delivered brief remarks to Florida supporters gathered in an auditorium-like space that also hosts weddings and other events. The former Massachusetts governor then walked over to where supporters are cordoned off and wait to shake his hand, get an autograph or take a photo. A group of reporters left an area designated for the media and tried to get within earshot of Romney.
That's when a campaign staffer, Kristin Warren, put her arms out to prevent reporters from walking past her, saying: "We're not going to do this." Romney spokesman Rick Gorka also warned reporters not to attempt to approach Romney, and a Secret Service agent told reporters that the campaign was prohibiting them from approaching without a staff escort.
After a brief standoff, reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, CBS, NBC, CNN and several other outlets circumvented the staffers and eventually moved close enough to hear Romney. Some shouted questions to him.
A few hours later, Romney's campaign acknowledged a mistake.
"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," spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said: "The Secret Service does not restrict movement of the press into a general public area or their movement within the general public area."
Later, before the inaugural flight of his campaign plane, Romney did something he hardly ever does. He walked to the rear of the plane to speak casually with reporters and alluded to his team's nervousness about him speaking to reporters in unscripted situations.
"Rick is about to pass out. Gorka is. 'What are you doing?'" Romney said, laughing and referring to his traveling press secretary who was several rows behind Romney. Gorka then waved his hand in a "wrap it up" motion.
For as impromptu as the moment seemed, Romney didn't respond when pressed about the vice president's speech in Ohio, where Joe Biden attacked Romney's record at Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney helped found.
Rope lines are a staple of political campaigns, but a candidate's presence there can lead to some memorable moments.
In 2008, Barack Obama was approached by Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio man who told Obama he would pay more taxes if Obama were elected. "When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody," Obama responded. The exchange was captured on video and widely replayed.
Earlier this year, Romney was on a rope line during the Daytona 500 when an AP reporter asked him about his familiarity with the sport. "I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners," he said, a comment that later drew criticism from Democrats trying to cast him as out of touch.
White House reporters traveling with Obama sometimes are limited in how they can approach the president on a rope line. Typically, photographers and TV sound engineers have more freedom to move. Still, reporters are able to observe Obama interacting with voters on airport tarmacs when he walks over to greet waiting crowds.
Obama often doesn't answer questions on rope lines, though he sometimes will chat with reporters. He recently told some that he won a basketball game he played with actors George Clooney and Tobey Maguire. The president prefers taking questions in formal interview settings.
Wednesday's rope-line incident was the latest dust-up between the press and Romney's campaign, which frequently limits access to a candidate known for making awkward, if not politically troublesome, statements during unscripted moments.
Romney rarely does interviews with print media. He prefers conservative broadcast outlets, appearing regularly on Fox News Channel and talking with conservative radio hosts. He also regularly tapes interviews with local TV and radio reporters when he visits different states. But he doesn't often allow himself to be grilled by the reporters who know him and his record best and who tend to ask the toughest questions.
His aides also are tight-lipped on even the most mundane issues, like travel logistics.
His campaign insists that almost all interactions between reporters and campaign staff be either anonymous or completely off the record. And he's only just now starting to allow his traveling press corps to share his campaign plane regularly. News organizations that travel with presidential candidates pay their own way, including plane fare, meals, hotels and other necessary expenses, often thousands of dollars per day.
The campaign also limits opportunities to watch Romney interact with voters. It says he regularly meets with middle-class families before events but those meetings are always done in private, with reporters not allowed to witness them. The campaign does not release the names of the attendees.