WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney responded Tuesday to complaints that is shielding himself from media scrutiny, agreeing to more in-depth interviews and holding his third modest press availability in four days.
The former Massachusetts governor continues to favor the conservative-friendly Fox News Channel. But his campaign seemed eager to fend off critics' mockery of his frequent dodges of reporters and tough questioning.
Romney agreed to appear on "Fox News Sunday" on Dec. 18, his first national Sunday talk show in nearly two years. In Arizona, he fielded a few questions from national reporters, as he did on two occasions Saturday in New Hampshire.
"I'll be on Fox a lot, because you guys matter when it comes to Republican primary voters," Romney told Fox News' Neil Cavuto on Tuesday. His campaign let other reporters listen to the exchange without jumping in.
The change in tone comes as Romney allies express fears that he is overdoing his above-the-fray approach, just as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is rising in GOP polls. Republican insiders are divided on whether Romney should hit Gingrich harder. But in the wake of Romney's prickly responses in a Nov. 29 televised interview, there was wider agreement that he needs to show he can handle tough questions from political reporters.
"The lack of engagement strategy has served Romney pretty well," Rich Galen, a GOP strategist and former Gingrich aide who is neutral in the current race, said in an interview Tuesday, before Romney signaled his more open posture. "Now I think they've got to alter course and get him out there more."
Numerous Romney supporters had expressed concern over reports of him dodging reporters.
"It remains a mystery why Mitt Romney has done relatively few interviews," Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger for The Washington Post who often praises Romney, wrote on Monday. The much-discussed Nov. 29 Fox interview, she said, might have gone better "had it been one of dozens of TV interviews he'd given during the campaign. ... He's been the least interviewed candidate in the race."
In that 15-minute exchange with Fox News' Bret Baier, Romney bristled at questions about his changed views on abortion, climate change, immigration and gay rights, all of which are widely discussed in political circles.
Romney acknowledged rejecting his pro-abortion-rights stand of the 1990s, although he did not explain why. Otherwise, he told Baier, "Your list is just not accurate." Romney suggested the questions were inspired by "Democratic ads" that label him a serial flip-flopper.
Asked about his Massachusetts health initiative, which required residents to obtain medical insurance, Romney said he had answered the question "many hundred times." He added: "This is an unusual interview."
The questions were typical of those that many mainstream news organizations would ask, with no surprises or oddball queries. Except for Fox, which has several conservative hosts and is a favorite stop for GOP candidates, Romney rarely gives extended interviews to TV networks or national newspapers and news magazines.
Campaigning last Saturday in Manchester, N.H., Romney was surrounded by cheering fans as he took a few questions from reporters in the morning. Shortly after noon, on a quiet residential street, he fielded a few more. However, the day's only one-on-one interviews, which give reporters a chance to ask follow-up questions, were with Fox News and a TV station from Derry, N.H.
On Tuesday, Romney hinted he might slowly ramp up his criticism of Gingrich as he conducts more press availabilities.
"I will not be quiet," he told Cavuto. "Speaker Gingrich is a friend, respected. But we have very different life experiences."
Romney said Gingrich has spent the past 40 years or so in Washington, "working as an insider." Romney, whose only elected experience is four years as Massachusetts governor, says he would bring a more business-oriented, outside perspective.
Some party veterans urge Romney to be cautious. Bitter quarrels between politicians are "what people are sick and tired of," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio. "It would be disappointing if he all the sudden lit in to Gingrich, and if Gingrich lit into Romney."
LaTourette said he is backing Romney, partly because he has a "hangover" from Gingrich's tumultuous days as House speaker in the mid-1990s. "Everything always seemed to be on fire," he said.
Republican consultant Terry Holt also urged Romney to proceed carefully.
"It's important to protect your candidate's reputation and image," he said. Romney has a statesmanlike image, Holt said, and "I'd be very hesitant to sacrifice that with so much time on the clock."
As for in-depth interview programs, even some Democrats sympathize with Romney's reluctance.
"It's a half hour or 15 minutes of gotcha questions," said Chris Lehane, who helped Al Gore deal with the media in the 2000 presidential campaign. But that doesn't mean a serious candidate can skip such shows, or comparable interviews with major newspapers or magazines, Lehane said.
"You have to find a happy balance," he said, between protecting the candidate from gaffes and convincing voters that the contender is smart, prepared and capable.
If a candidate skips tough questions or handles them badly, Lehane said, voters will ask, "How are you going to deal with some significant crisis? These are fairly easy things compared to what you'll face as president."
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Democrats happily distribute anecdotes of Romney evading journalists. They include a New York Times account of Romney being the only candidate expressing alarm at a reporter's presence backstage at last Saturday's GOP forum in New York.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said her candidate "has done thousands of interviews over the course of his career, and he'll do a lot more." He exposes himself to questions in town hall settings, televised debates and numerous videotaped interviews with newspaper editorial boards, Saul said.
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman in Washington and Beth Fouhy in New York contributed to this report.