Mitt Romney joins the mile-high club

John McCain's former rival shows up in Denver to slam Barack Obama and, officially at least, not audition for the GOP's vice-presidential nod.

Topics: War Room,

DENVER — Mitt Romney rolled into the Mile High City Tuesday, but he wasn’t here to audition for a spot on John McCain’s ticket. Just ask, well, Mitt Romney.

“I’m not in any way trying to promote my qualifications or dissuade others of my disqualifications to serve [on McCain's ticket],” Romney told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor lunch downtown. For someone who’s not trying out for anything, he’s awfully busy in Denver; he ran off to a press conference at the GOP’s bunker up the street after lunch. “That’s not what I’m doing here.”

That may be a good thing, since a few times some of Romney’s lines strayed out of the strict message discipline he usually displays and into the territory that made him more entertaining to cover than a buttoned-up businessman who doesn’t curse should be. Take foreign policy, for example.

Trying to hit Barack Obama for not standing up to Russia as aggressively as McCain after the invasion of Georgia, Romney twice referred to “the Soviets,” prompting a reporter to point out his mistake. “I’m sorry,” Romney said. “Excuse me for the slip; if I said Soviets, I meant the Russians.” But then he went on. “Poland is in NATO,” he said. “And if the Soviets were to invade Poland, we might be in armed conflict. But the Soviets are not going to invade Poland, because Poland is in NATO.” (Well, yes, but also because the Soviets don’t exist anymore.) Maybe next the Soviets will be marching on Czechoslovakia?

That’s OK, economic matters are more Romney’s speed. But he ran into a little trouble there, too. Someone asked him about the Obama campaign’s efforts to highlight McCain’s inability to say how many houses he had last week, and whether Romney’s own multiple properties might make it tough for him to wind up on the GOP ticket. “I have one less than John Kerry has,” he said, holding up four fingers to indicate his four homes (making him a relative pauper compared with the McCains). Ignore the fact that Kerry was the Democratic nominee last time, and this wasn’t a bad attempt to turn the tables around, rather than answer the question of how the 11-house McCain-Romney ticket would fare against the two-house Obama-Biden one. But then he went on. “John McCain is a man who has served his nation in the military — he served it in a prison camp,” Romney said. “And to suggest that because he and his wife own four homes that they use for their personal living quarters, that that somehow means he’s detached from America, is simply wrong, and — I think — offensive.”

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If “four homes” sounds wrong to you because you remembered John and Cindy McCain owning seven, you’re not counting like a Republican; three of them are investment properties. And who doesn’t have an investment property or three? Obviously those can’t be used against McCain.

“John McCain earned his homes through the hard work, insight and fortitude of his family and himself, and Barack Obama got a special deal from a convicted felon,” Romney continued, trying to steer the conversation away from economic disparities and toward the friendlier topic (to him, at least) of Tony Rezko. Exactly what insight of McCain’s helped earn all those properties was unclear, unless it was his ability to recognize a powerful, wealthy Arizona family when he saw one.

Either way, if you had a problem with McCain’s answer on the question of how many homes he owns, you’re probably just jealous. “I just don’t think the politics of envy end up being successful in the final analysis,” Romney summed up.

This may be too hard on Romney. Besides those two episodes, he was actually a pretty effective GOP surrogate, highlighting all the Republican talking points for the week (Hillary Clinton vs. Obama, Biden’s experience vs. Obama’s lack of it, drilling for oil offshore vs. not) and flat-out refusing to talk about whether he was even being vetted as a potential vice-presidential nominee. He did say he and McCain had patched up their differences. “I suggest we’re friends,” Romney said. “I think he’d say the same thing.”

McCain is planning to announce his running mate on Friday, at a rally in Dayton, Ohio. Romney’s leaving Denver for some events in Nevada Wednesday, and then his schedule for the end of the week is conveniently clear. But alas, spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom didn’t even crack a smile when I asked if a trip to Ohio was in the future. Romney — and the world — will find out soon enough.

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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