Politics

Mitt Romney risked losing cool, outlined diplomatic style in weekend debate

Jeff Haynes/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney listens as senior adviser Ben Ginsberg comments at Saturday night’s debate in Iowa.

DES MOINES – Amid all the post-debate chatter about the $10,000 bet Mitt Romney offered to rival Rick Perry, there were a couple other moments from Saturday night’s meeting at Drake University worth noting for the former Massachusetts governor.

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As he did in an earlier debate when Rick Perry criticized him for having illegal aliens landscaping his yard, Romney started to lash out this weekend when Newt Gingrich responded to his allegation that the former House speaker was a “career politician.”

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Gingrich shot back: “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.”

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By that index, Romney would be in his 17th year in Washington, almost three-quarters of the time he spent in the business world – the outsider credential he says best prepares him to be president now.

Romney tried to cut in and respond to Gingrich immediately, but debate moderator George Stephanopoulos convinced him to wait.

After Gingrich responded to a series of criticisms Romney had lobbed his way, the former Massachusetts governor was more composed and delivered a witty retort.

“With regards to the idea that if I’d have beaten Ted Kennedy I could have been a career politician, that’s probably true,” said Romney. “If I would’ve been able to get in the NFL liked I hope when I was a kid, why, I would have been a football star all my life too. But I spent my life in the private sector. Losing to Teddy Kennedy was probably the best thing I could have done for preparing me for the job I’m seeking, because it put me back in the private sector. I worked in the private sector. I learned lessons that are desperately needed in Washington.”

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By the way, Romney’s chosen name, Mitt, the middle of his three given names – Willard Mitt Romney – actually derives from a relative who played in the NFL.

Milt Romney – the cousin of Mitt Romney’s father, George - was a quarterback for the Chicago Bears during the 1920s.

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In another exchange with Gingrich, Romney sketched the outlines of how he would conduct diplomacy as a president – especially in relation to Israel.

The discussion was prompted by Gingrich’s recent comment that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. It sparked criticism not only from Palestinian leaders, but also Israeli figures who must co-exist with them and with whom they are trying to negotiate a peace settlement.

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In Romney’s case, he regularly slams President Obama for his treatment of the Middle Eastern ally, saying the United States should stand firmly by the region’s oldest democracy.

He has pledged to make Israel his first foreign destination as president, bypassing the usual first visits to neighbors Canada and Mexico.

He also takes particular offense at any slight of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Romney worked at the Boston Consulting Group when they was just starting his careers.

But in his debate answer, Romney revealed he wouldn’t necessarily roll over for every Israeli wish – at least not privately.

“My view is this: We stand with the Israeli people. We link arms with them,” said Romney. “If we disagree with them, like this president has time and time again, we don’t do it in public like he’s done it, we do it in private.

“And we let the Israeli leadership describe what they believe the right course is going forward. We don’t negotiate for the Israeli people. We stand with the Israeli people, stand with our friends, and make it very clear: We are going to tell the truth, but we’re not going to throw incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot, when our friends the Israelis would probably say, ‘What in the world are you doing?’”

He later added that if “I’m president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability. And make sure that in a setting like this, anything I say that can affect a place with rockets going in, with people dying, I don’t do anything that would harm that process.

“And therefore, before I made a statement of that nature, I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘Would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do? Let’s work together, because we’re partners.’ I’m not a bomb-thrower, rhetorically or literally,” said Romney.

At least not after Stephanopoulos allowed him to calm down.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.