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Romney Ropes Off Media to Avoid Making Unscripted Gaffes

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is clamping down on unrehearsed comments by the presumed Republican nominee, tightening control of his message to limit gaffes as he courts a broader swath of the electorate that will decide the November election.

Aides to the former Massachusetts governor, who has created political headaches for himself with unscripted comments, have taken to barring reporters from asking questions as he greets voters and blocking the media from even observing the chats.

He has held question-and-answer sessions with national reporters covering his campaign twice in the five weeks since he sewed up the nomination.

Also, he has begun a practice of meeting privately with a small group of voters before public events, for what aides call “off-the-record” sessions to hear their concerns. Reporters are shut off from the encounters.

That was the case yesterday in St. Petersburg, Florida, where reporters covering Romney’s speech were told in advance they couldn’t ask questions as the candidate greeted voters along a security rope line.

Those who defied the order were blocked by Secret Service agents and campaign volunteers and given stern warnings not to try it again.

Staff Error

Campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul called the incident a mistake and said reporters will be free to witness Romney’s flesh-pressing.

“This was an error on the part of the campaign staff and volunteers,” Saul said in a statement. “Press is allowed on the rope line.”

Still, the episode sheds light on a shift in Romney’s campaign, from primaries in which he vied with Republican rivals for attention to a one-on-one fight with President Barack Obama. There is a premium now on honing a message to compete with the White House bully pulpit.

The candidate-seclusion rules aren’t universally applied. Romney grants access to news outlets in competitive states -- he taped four interviews yesterday in Florida -- and to those regarded as friendly.

JP Morgan Remarks

In a podcast interview yesterday with blogger Ed Morrissey of the website Hot Air, Romney responded to the Obama campaign’s criticism of his private-equity work at Bain Capital LLC and gave a reaction journalists had been seeking for days to JP Morgan (JPM)’s $2 billion trading loss.

“The $2 billion JP Morgan lost, someone else gained,” Romney said in the interview. “I would not rush to pass new regulation or new legislation.”

Romney isn’t the only one largely off-limits to the press, except in selected moments.

With round-the-clock Secret Service protection, Obama is cloistered, his interactions with voters almost entirely limited to meetings meticulously planned by his staff. His exchanges with reporters are almost always in news conferences at a time and place of his choosing.

Time-Honored Practice

“It’s par for the course,” going back as far as former President Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the Philadelphia-based Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “Once a candidate becomes the prospective nominee, or knows that he has the nomination sewed up, the campaign seeks to close the press off.”

That is especially true of Romney, who has suffered from self-inflicted wounds when he veered off-script to draw attention to his status as a wealthy former private-equity executive. He also made news when answering shouted questions on such issues as Rush Limbaugh calling a contraceptive-access advocate a “slut,” the Trayvon Martin murder case in Florida and whether he would have authorized the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

“Of course, of course -- even Jimmy Carter would have given that order,” Romney told reporters on the rope line in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on April 30.

Showing New Discipline

By last week, he showed more discipline. Asked about same-sex marriage after Obama had addressed the topic in a television interview, Romney responded: “Not on the rope line.” His campaign later scheduled a brief session with reporters to respond to Obama’s announcement that he supported same-sex marriage.

Romney made himself available to reporters on April 23 in Chester Township, Pennsylvania, as Obama’s campaign highlighted the president’s push to freeze federal student loan interest rates. When campaign aides sought to end the session after a few questions -- none about student loan rates -- Romney returned to the microphone to announce he backed Obama’s move.

Obama Media Avoidance

The president generally doesn’t respond to shouted questions while greeting voters, though at times a White House official will hint to a chosen reporter that one might be welcomed. That was the case on March 23 when Obama, at a Rose Garden appearance to introduce his nominee to run the World Bank, made his first public comments on the Trayvon Martin case.

The candidates leave the details of press interactions to aides focused entirely on keeping the candidates on-message.

Chatting with reporters on his campaign plane yesterday, Romney acted unaware that his campaign prevented reporters from approaching him after the St. Petersburg event.

Gesturing to the front of the plane and his staff, Romney joked that, after seeing him with reporters, his traveling press secretary “is about to pass out.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Coral Gables, Florida at

jdavis159@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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