PORTLAND, Maine — Mitt Romney weathered heckling inside and the presence of a crowd of Ron Paul supporters outside the building Friday night as he tried to sell himself to Mainers as the Republican Party’s best shot to knock President Barack Obama out of office in the coming election.
Romney held a town hall-style meeting at the Portland Company Marine Complex the night before many Maine communities hold caucuses and the state GOP announces the results of its presidential preference poll. Saturday provides the former Massachusetts governor an opportunity to put another state in his win column — and bolster his front-runner status — after rival and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum swept the Tuesday caucuses in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
Romney’s strongest competition for Maine’s GOP endorsement, however, is expected to be the Libertarian-leaning Paul, who visited the state a week ago and plans to campaign here again during caucuses Saturday. On Friday night, as the crowd of more than 500 filed out of Romney’s event in Portland, they were faced by Paul supporters handing out leaflets, holding large signs and even projecting pro-Paul sentiments onto the building in green laser lights.
Neither Santorum nor former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have campaigned in Maine.
While many of the questions offered by attendees were supportive, Romney absorbed scattered heckling and confrontational questions during his town hall-style give-and-take inside the rustic red brick structure Friday. The candidate largely kept his composure and defended his stances when faced with more combative audience members.
The overwhelmingly pro-Romney crowd responded to confrontational questions with a retaliatory hail of boos and enthusiastically cheered the candidate’s replies to those questions.
The former Massachusetts governor, who has won the New Hampshire and Florida GOP primaries thus far in the race, was asked by Munjoy Hill News blogger Carol McCracken if he “thinks it’s patriotic to stash your money in the Cayman Islands.”
Romney told McCracken a blind trustee has managed his money for 10 years and he never has used out-of-country accounts as shelters from taxes.
“I have not saved one dollar by investing overseas,” he said. “I have paid all my U.S. taxes and, by the way, not a dollar more.”
That retort garnered an appreciative pop from supporters, who consistently applauded Romney’s calls for lower taxes, reduced government regulations and private sector solutions to the country’s problems. He pointed to his past as a business leader as proof that he can “make the hard decisions” necessary to “cap government spending” and “finally balance the budget.”
“In the private sector, which most of you live in, you have to have a balanced budget or you go broke,” Romney said.
Instead of focusing on his Republican challengers Friday night, he largely took aim at the Democratic incumbent he’d have to face if he gains the GOP nomination, which many pundits still expect to happen despite his recent loss of momentum.
Romney called the Keystone XL oil pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada — which the Obama administration last month denied amid environmentalists’ concerns of air and water pollution — a “no brainer,” attracting heckling from one corner of the room and cheers from others.
“The president has blocked coal, he’s blocked oil and he’s blocked natural gas,” the candidate said.
Romney also told Friday night’s crowd that if elected president he will grant waivers to Obama’s health care plan to all 50 states, designate China as a “ currency manipulator” and apply tariffs to Chinese goods accordingly, and distribute leases for oil drilling on approved American properties, among other things.
In a state where one of the largest private employers is destroyer builder Bath Iron Works, Romney criticized Obama’s efforts to cut military spending, saying in part he would increase Navy ship procurement from nine per year to 15.
Romney, who received more than 50 percent of the Republican vote during the 2008 Maine caucuses before dropping out of that year’s presidential race, was introduced at the Friday event by Maine Attorney General William Schneider and Peter Cianchette, an executive with Cianbro construction and Romney’s state campaign chairman.
Other recognizable Republicans in the audience included state Senate President Kevin Raye and Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and former New Hampshire governor and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.
Members of a protest group sarcastically calling themselves “Billionaires for Romney” announced plans to demonstrate at the event, angry about corporate influence on political campaigns. In a protest announcement, group leader Wells Lyons called Romney’s war chest of more than $50 million — by far the most of the Republican candidates, although far less than Obama’s nearly $140 million in campaign funds — emblematic of a “corrupt system.”