By Seth McLaughlin
Mitt Romney faced down chants of "Wall Street greed!" Thursday as he stood, leg astride a hay bale, and brushed aside hecklers questioning how he planned to beef up Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid without cutting benefits.
The testy exchange gave a pugnacious edge to Mr. Romney's appearance at an old-fashioned political soapbox event at the Iowa State Fair, just hours before the former Massachusetts governor was due to face off with seven other Republican presidential candidates in Thursday's GOP debate.
"The way this is going to work is that you get to ask your question and I get to give my answer. If you don't like my answer, you can vote for someone else," he told the hecklers, who turned out to be liberal activists.
"You ready for my answer? I'm not going to raise taxes. That's my answer. If you want someone to raise taxes, you can vote for Barack Obama," he said.
At one point, the candidate defended the country's business community by telling the activists, "Corporations are people, my friend."
Thursday's debate, about 40 miles to the north in Ames, is the main event for Mr. Romney, who is foregoing Saturday's Ames Straw Poll. He spent heavily in 2007 to win the circus-like event, only to go on to lose the Iowa caucuses and later lose the nomination.
It will be just the second time that Mr. Romney, the front-runner, will share the stage with his GOP rivals -- many of whom are anxious to cast themselves as best anyone-but-Romney candidate.
In many ways, Mr. Romney hopes for a repeat of the June debate in New Hampshire, where he emerged unscathed. Meanwhile, some of his GOP rivals -- particularly former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann, both of Minnesota, as well as Texas Rep. Ron Paul -- are hoping that a strong performance in the debate can propel them to strong showings in the straw poll.
Before confronting what turned out to be liberal activists at the soapbox event, the 64-year-old highlighted his business experience, called for less spending and less government, and took direct aim at President Obama's stance on tax, health care, and Wall Street reform.
"On every dimension you can think of in this president's first two-and-a-half years in office, the actions he took made it harder for entrepreneurs to build businesses, for banks to loan money, for big businesses to invest in capital and in people. As a result the American people are still suffering and that is why I predict in this place on this day that in November 2012 President Obama will not carry the state of Iowa."
Wrapping up the question-and-answer session, Mr. Romney joked: "These guys up front won't be voting for me."
As video of the confrontation made the rounds of cable news networks, political pundits speculated that Mr. Romney's polite-but-forceful handling of the hecklers could quell some lingering doubts among the GOP faithful.
Former Democratic pollster Pat Caddell and former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, in separate appearances on Fox News, both said the incident could be pivotal for the Romney campaign.
After the question-and-answer session, Mr. Romney dove into the sprawling fairgrounds, where he shook hands, repeatedly guessed the ages of children, posed for photos, signed autographs and took a stab at some small talk amid the food booths selling deep-fried Twinkies and corn dogs.
At one point, he asked 46-year-old Bruce Caripar, a landscaper, what sort of injury put him in a wheelchair. "Acting like a 12-year-old?" Mr. Romney joked. Mr. Caripar shook his head, later telling The Washington Times that he popped his Achilles tendon practicing a martial arts kick, and that Mr. Romney's characterization was an apt one.
Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley joined him along the way and the two Republicans exchanged pleasantries about the weather as they made their way the Iowa Pork Tent, where they strapped on red cooking aprons and flipped a few burgers. With smoke billowing from the grill, they smiled as they turned over patty after patty, while photographers snapped shots.