SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney returned to Salt Lake City on Saturday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Winter Games he helped lead, but the GOP presidential candidate came under attack for urging the federal government to provide big bucks for Olympic expenses.
Romney was hired to lead the Salt Lake Olympic Committee after a bribery scandal threatened the games. The success of those Olympics, he says during the campaign, help make the case for his bid for the White House. "I led an Olympics out of the shadows of scandal," Romney told conservative activists this month.
In brief remarks to Olympic staff and volunteers on Saturday, Romney highlighted his own efforts to cut costs at the games and was careful to highlight the accomplishments of those who worked for him. He didn't mention his presidential run.
Romney said he cut millions from the budget to decorate the city and argued some of the venues built in Salt Lake cost much less than they had in other cities that had hosted winter games.
Romney, who has sometimes been accused of taking too much personal credit for saving the games when many others contributed, was careful to acknowledge the support he received.
"I just want to say thanks to all those that lit the fire within. The accounting team, the legal team," Romney said, referring to the games' theme song, "Light the Fire Within," and rattling off the groups he had left off his list of people to thank.
Romney also planned to greet several private receptions ahead of a planned speech at an ice skating exhibition celebrating of the anniversary.
"The Olympics was really the first place where the entire country got to know" him, said spokeswoman Gail Gitcho."It propelled him into the national spotlight."
But his opponents are attacking his record at the games, with both Democrats and GOP presidential rival Rick Santorum criticizing Romney for helping to secure millions in federal earmarks that helped cover Olympic costs.
"One of the things he talks about most is how he heroically showed up on the scene and bailed out and resolved the problems of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games," Santorum said during a campaign stop in Columbus, Ohio. "He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic Games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail out the Salt Lake games Â€" in an earmark."
Democrats made those claims, too, in a web video released Friday. They highlighted comments from Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee who's a longtime critic of federal support for the Olympics and other international sporting events.
McCain called the Olympics "an incredible pork-barrel project for Salt Lake City and its environs."
Romney's campaign says most of the money went to provide security in the wake of Sept. 11. The games were held about five months after the terrorist attacks and were the first major international event since the al-Qaida strikes.
"There is a pretty wide gulf between seeking money for post-9/11 security at the Olympics and seeking earmarks for polar bear exhibits at the Pittsburgh Zoo," spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement, taking a dig at Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator. "Mitt Romney wants to ban earmarks. Sen. Santorum wants more 'Bridges to Nowhere.'"
That's a reference to two proposed bridge projects priced at some $450 million, in sparsely populated areas of Alaska, that became a symbol for the proliferation of thousands of earmarks, or special projects sought by individual lawmakers, that were part of 2005 transportation legislation.
While security costs did increase dramatically after Sept. 11, Romney and his team pushed for federal aid long before the attacks. In the fall of 2001, the government already planned to spend about $342 million in non-Sept. 11 related costs, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Romney listed getting more federal dollars as one of the three priorities for his Olympic committee almost as soon as he took the reins in spring of 1999.
"I was going to be spending a lot of time in D.C.," Romney wrote in his book about the games, called "Turnaround."
And McCain's tirade came in 2000, well before the attacks.
After Romney took over, lobbyists for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee asked for money to support a tree planting program, anti-doping educational programs, cultural outreach, communications and Weather Service funding, among other areas. The committee hired lobbyists from top firms in Washington to help with the effort.
All told, according to Romney's account, the government spent about $600 million helping the Salt Lake Olympic Committee. An additional $1.1 billion was planned for projects like roads and bridges, infrastructure improvement projects that the government assumed would have paid for eventually, though the timing of the games may have sped up the construction.
Romney's record at the Olympics is viewed positively, and business and community leaders in Salt Lake City widely say he deserves significant credit for helping to lead the games in the wake of the bribery scandal.
Still, Romney is running as a deficit hawk and accusing rival Santorum of asking for millions in earmarks during his years serving as a senator from Pennsylvania. Earmarks are a potent issue with the conservative tea party voters that are a key part of the GOP primary.
"If you want a fiscal conservative, you can't vote for Rick Santorum. He says he's a deficit hawk. He's not!" Romney told supporters in Boise, Idaho, on Friday.
Santorum on Saturday accused Romney of hypocrisy in those attacks. "Now Governor Romney is suggesting, 'Oh Rick Santorum earmarked,'" Santorum said. "Does the word hypocrisy come to mind?"