Would Romney Cut Firefighters?

Image credit: Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

Mitt Romney appears to be denying that he would cut firefighters and teachers as president, though comments by his campaign and supporters haven't fully resolved a statement the candidate made last week about public workers.

Romney said on Fox News today that Democrats' claim about him wanting to cut those workers is a "very strange accusation."

Later, as reporters briefly cornered him in Orlando, Romney refused to talk about his comment about firefighters and teachers. "Oh, I'm not going to talk about that," he said.

On Monday, though, his campaign did little to suggest that his recent comment about cutting back on firefighters, police officers and teachers had been taken out of context.

At first it seemed as if Romney's statement about President Obama - "He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message in Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people." - was an unfortunate phrasing or combination of thoughts.

But the campaign didn't provide any clarification on the record of what else Romney might have meant to say. Asked repeatedly for elaboration, Amanda Henneberg, a Romney spokeswoman, provided a statement about Obama being "out of touch."

Asked about his comment on Fox News, Romney replied: "Of course, teachers and firemen and policemen are hired at the local level and also by states. The federal government doesn't pay for teachers, firefighters or policemen. So obviously that is completely absurd, but he's got a new idea, though, and that is to have another stimulus and to have the federal government to try and bail out cities and states. It didn't work the first time. It certainly wouldn't work the second time."

John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor who is one of Romney's most visible supporters in the media, said in a TV interview on Monday that laying off teachers makes sense if fewer kids are in classrooms and new technology assists in learning.

"I think this is a real issue, and people ought to stop jumping on it as a gaffe and understand there's wisdom in the comment," Sununu said.

Brad Woodhouse, the communications director of the Democratic National Committee, responded on a conference call shortly afterward: "I thought John Sununu's comments were a bunch of hooey."

"I think that Sununu was trying to find a way to justify Romney's comments, but it doesn't - it didn't at all match what reality is," he said.

Romney has argued to teachers, citing a study, that having fewer students in classrooms doesn't make as much of a difference as many people think. Generally, academics have agreed that class size matters for kids at very young ages, but less so after that.

Four of Romney's economic advisers didn't respond to emails seeking an explanation of whether laying off firefighters, police officers and teachers is a good policy proposal.

The Romney campaign argues - on "background" with no names attached - that he was arguing that Obama's solution to heal the economy is to spend more money to hire public workers.

The Obama campaign is fighting fire with fire, focusing on Romney's statement as a counter to the GOP's barrage of attacks that have been centered on the president's recent comment that "the private sector is doing fine," as the economy continues to struggle to add jobs.

A difference between the two episodes is that Obama clarified his regrettable phrasing almost immediately, speaking to a press pool after a diplomatic meeting at the White House. Romney, meanwhile, has been absent from the public eye and hasn't given himself a chance to clear up any confusion.

Asked repeatedly if Romney would cut firefighters as president, his campaign hasn't explicitly said whether he would do so.

Emily Friedman and Shushannah Walshe contributed reporting.