Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, clearly irritated by a handful of hecklers amid supporters at the Iowa State Fair, insisted Thursday that "corporations are people," a comment Democrats gleefully predicted would be a defining moment of his campaign.
Hours before he was to face most of his primary opponents in an Iowa debate, the former Massachusetts governor was outlining options for reining in the federal deficit and overhauling entitlement programs. He acknowledged that raising taxes on individuals was an option, but he said he opposed it.
That's when about a dozen hecklers started shouting at him.
"Corporations! Corporations!" they said, seemingly suggesting that corporations should take the brunt of new taxes.
"Corporations are people, my friend," Romney said with uncharacteristic pique.
Several people in the front of the crowd — they identified themselves as linked to the liberal Iowa Center for Community Involvement — interrupted: "No, they're not."
Romney, who had already faced tough questions from the group's members who arrived early and claimed the best seats, plowed right ahead.
"Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?" said Romney, a wealthy businessman who has struggled with an aloof and elitist image as he tries for the GOP presidential nomination a second time.
His critics were not buying it and shouted back that the money goes in corporate pockets.
"Whose pockets? People's pockets? Human beings, my friend," Romney said.
Typically unflappable, Romney grew agitated as he kept calling on members of the group. After one question, he asked the questioner which group he was from and not where he lived, acknowledging the questions were planted to embarrass him.
Democrats didn't hesitate to seize the moment.
"It is a shocking admission from a candidate — and a party — that shamelessly puts forward policies to help large corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class, seniors and students," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman.
Romney's terse back and forth was just the latest example of why his advisers are limiting his public events. When he ran four years ago, he packed his days with events and weighed in on every topic. Now the front-runner, he instead prefers more controlled environments where he is less prone to gaffes or moments that could spin out his handlers' control.
Romney faced other questions along the same lines during an appearance before the evening debate in Ames. One person asked about closing "corporate tax loopholes on big banks to raise revenue and balance the state budget."
Romney's reply: "There are a lot of people who use the word 'loophole' to say, 'Let's just raise taxes on people.' And that I will not do. I will not raise taxes."
His hecklers did not relent: "Pay your fair share."
Romney's comments hearken back to other candidates' truthful — though politically embarrassing — moments on the campaign trail. During 2008, for instance, Sen. John McCain declared "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" as the economy melted down.
Earlier, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton drew fire during her Democratic primary for defending lobbyists.
"A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans," she said. "They represent nurses, they represent social workers, yes, they represent corporations that employ a lot of people."
It did little to endear her to her party's base.
- Colorado Mormons join other faiths in...
- Video: Miss Utah USA flubs answer at Miss USA...
- NPR writer 'slightly' defends Miss Utah USA's...
- Pew study: News media inserted bias into gay...
- Parents rally after Canadian elementary...
- IRS official: Washington scrutinized very...
- Issues plaguing black families in the...
- Google building database to help clear child...
- Pew study: News media inserted bias... 48
- Video: Miss Utah USA flubs answer at... 26
- Parents rally after Canadian elementary... 20
- Officials: NSA programs broke terrorist... 15
- IRS official: Washington scrutinized... 15
- Unpaid internships in jeopardy after... 14
- New York English teacher assigns... 13
- Obama steps up military aid to Syrian... 12