Joined by his wife Ann at a rally in Florida late Friday, Republican nominee Mitt Romney sounded a particularly gentle tone, pausing variously to defend embattled presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer, casually dismiss bitter accusations circulating online that he used a cheat sheet during the Wednesday night debate, and publicly reflect on the recent deaths of several close friends.
Lehrer, a PBS veteran who has moderated a dozen presidential debates, has taken heat from pundits and late-night talk show hosts for offering broad questions and failing to enforce the Denver debate’s time restrictions. For his part, Lehrer has stood by his performance, even as he makes it clear he has no plans to return to the moderator’s table in 2016.
“I think that Jim Lehrer did an excellent job in raising issues and having the candidates talk about our views on issues, rather than just the ‘gotcha’ thing that sometimes happens with media interviews,” Romney told the crowd of nearly 6,000 gathered on the St. Petersburg waterfront.
Lehrer’s moderation skills also became a favored target for liberals scrambling to explain President Barack Obama’s apparently decisive defeat in the debate. Former Vice President Al Gore suggested that the altitude of Denver may have made the president woozy and affected his ability to concentrate, but others, including MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, lamented on-air that Romney repeatedly talked over Lehrer’s instructions.
Romney deflected repeated suggestions by liberal bloggers and Reddit users that he had carried notes into the debate right under Lehrer’s nose. Speculation that Romney had used a crib sheet was rampant even before the debate concluded, with a post on Wonkette going so far as to declare, “OH LOOK HERE IS CHEATING CHEATER MITT ROMNEY PULLING ILLEGAL NOTES OUT AT THE DEBATE.”
“I don’t have to look at notes to know what [the parts of my jobs plan] are, by the way,” Romney told the crowd, to laughter.
The rally became more personal, however, when Romney, in an effort to describe the character and strength of ordinary Americans, began talking about the recent death of Bill Hulse, a friend from his graduate school days who became quadriplegic after an accident. Romney said he had just seen Hulse earlier in the year.
“It’s not easy for Billy to get around. … He can’t move, of course, his arms and his legs, and he can barely speak,” Romney said. “I reached down and I put my hand on Billy’s shoulder and I whispered into his ear, and I said ‘Billy, God bless you, I love ya.’ And he whispered right back to me – and I couldn’t quite hear what he said. He tried to speak loud enough for me to hear. … He died the next day.”
Romney also recounted writing the will of a terminally ill 14-year-old boy, David Oparowski, who kept his spirit strong despite suffering from leukimia.
“So I went to David’s bedside and got a piece of legal paper, made it look very official. And then David proceeded to tell me what he wanted to give his friends. Talked about his fishing rod, and who would get that. He talked about his skateboard, who’d get that. And his rifle, that went to his brother,” Romney said. “I’ve seen the character of a young man like David, who wasn’t emotional or crying. He had his eyes wide open.”
Oparowski’s mother spoke in a video produced for the GOP convention this summer about the experience.
“David, knowing Mitt had gone to law school at Harvard, asked Mitt if he would help him write a will. He had some prize possessions that he wanted to make sure were given to his closest friends and family. The next time Mitt went to the hospital, he was equipped with his yellow legal pad and pen. Together, they made David’s will. That is a task that no child should ever have to do. But it gave David peace of mind. So after David’s death, we were able to give his skateboard, his model rockets, and his fishing gear to his best friends. He also made it clear that his brother Peter should get his Ruger .22 rifle. How many men do you know who would take the time out of their busy lives to visit a terminally ill 14-year-old and help him settle his affairs?”
“David also helped us plan his funeral,” David’s mother said. “He wanted to be buried in his Boy Scout uniform. He wanted Mitt to pronounce his eulogy, and Mitt was there to honor that request. We will be ever grateful to Mitt for his love and concern.”
A Rasmussen poll released after the Wednesday debate shows Romney holding onto a slight two-point lead in Florida.