In an age when presidential campaigns are typically heavily scripted, town-hall style meetings are anything but.
The upside is that you get the informality of the candidate interacting with regular voters as he or she fields their questions and seems accessible. The downside is you never know what a voter handed the microphone will say.
Mitt Romney, who appears well on his way to becoming the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, got a taste of that risk at a Monday event at a Euclid, OH manufacturing company.
A woman with a question accused Obama of taking extraconstitutional actions and asked Romney what he planned to do to "restore balance" between the branches of government. Of course, she also threw into the mix, after being prodded by someone else in the audience, that she thought Obama should be tried for treason.
In his answer, Romney sidestepped the whole treason issue, preferring to ridicule the president for a statement Obama made some weeks back around the time the Supreme Court heard arguments on the health-care law. The president appeared to question the high court's well-established power to nullify acts of Congress, opening himself up to Romney's jibes.
Later, when a reporter asked Romney why he hadn't rejected the woman's treason- trial comment just as Sen. John McCain four years ago corrected a woman who said Obama was Muslim at a similar event, Romney shook his head, said "no" and added that "I don't correct all the questions that get asked of me. I obviously don't agree he should be tried."
Some of the online response from those defending Romney's action or inaction falls into the category of "both sides do it." Some defenders pointed to an unverified report that Romney was called a traitor by someone in the crowd at an Obama campaign rally in Ohio over the weekend.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney adviser, tweeted:
Flashback to Sat's announcement RT @ZekeMillerI've heard a handful of shouts of "traitor" re: Romney at the Obama event
To which Stephanie Cutter of the Obama campaign responded:
.@EricFehrn PRESIDENT: "Now, Governor Romney is a patriotic American. He's raised a wonderful family, and he has much to be proud
Anyway, the Obama campaign saw an opportunity and it took it it. Ben LaBolt, press secretary for Obama for America, tweeted:
"Once again today, @MittRomney stood by silently as his surrogates and supporters made extreme statements & attacked the President's family"
LaBolt's mention of family was a reference to a comment by the man who introduced Romney at the event, Ohio auditor Dave Yost. That Buckeye State official criticized the president and first lady Michelle Obama for a trip to New York early in the presidency for a night out on the town.
Yost didn't stop there. He also belittled Obama's role in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, likening the president to a famous fast-food clown.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported this about Yost's comments:
"A Romney backer, Yost told a crowd of more than 500 that giving the president credit for bin Laden's death would 'be like giving Ronald McDonald credit for the Big Mac you had for lunch. Everyone knows it's the man working the griddle, not the man on TV.' "
Then there was the man in the audience who asked Romney to explain why he paid taxes abroad.
MAN: "Thanks for taking my question., In this age of tough foreign competition, I think you would agree that we need to invest smart in America to help our country grow and get stronger. Based on that, I'd appreciate your comments on an investing strategy that seems to have resulted in several million dollars of your personal income taxes being paid to foreign countries instead of ours. And I'm referring to page 169 of your 2010 income tax return where you took over $1.5 million in foreign tax credits in ten years. Appreciate your comments."
ROMNEY: "I'll look at it. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I didn't think I paid any foreign income taxes. But I'll be glad to take a look at it."
Again, it all goes to show why candidates and campaigns tend to prefer to stick with the script and, yes, even the teleprompter. Candidates can and do step on their own messages plenty; they don't need any help from voters in that department.