WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Mitt Romney tiptoes his way back into Iowa in anticipation of contesting the critical early January caucus, he's enduring more scrutiny over his position on ethanol subsidies, a still-sacrosanct topic in the Hawkeye State.
The former Massachusetts governor tackled the issue during a visit to the state on Thursday, his first since mid-August. And in doing so, he seemed to adopt a blunter note.
"I'm not running for office based on making promises of handing out money," he told a group of farmers. "And you're not looking for that, but I don't want to suggest, 'Hey, I have money for everything. More money for schools, new projects, economic development, more money for farmers.' We're going to have to live within our means."
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"I believe ethanol is an important part of our fuel solution, our energy solution. I supported the subsidy of ethanol to help get the industry on its feet," he said. He noted that the direct government ethanol subsidy is scheduled to expire in December, and many producers have said they're fine with the expiration.
Being noncommittal about continuing ethanol subsidies is a convenient way of avoiding the topic. But it's also a touch less disingenuous than embracing federal funds for the fuel product simply because it appeals to Iowa voters. And as a Republican source unaffiliated with any campaign points out, Romney once was of the latter position:
"I support the subsidy of ethanol," he told an Iowa voter back in May. "I believe ethanol is an important part of our energy solution for this country."
Asked to explain the seeming alteration in Romney's position, Eric Ferhnstrom, his top campaign spokesperson, argued for its consistency.
"He supports ethanol but he doesn't believe any subsidy is permanent," he emailed. Ferhnstrom also noted that in Romney's book, "No Apology," he wrote that the United States "should acknowledge that subsidies for one form of energy also discourage investment in alternatives that don't receive subsidies, which may undermine innovation ... Once an industry is up and running, the disadvantages of subsidies outweigh their benefits."
Indeed, to the extent that this might be seen as a flip on Romney's part, it's not necessarily one of political convenience. Tea Party voters and national conservatives may cheer tough talk on ending energy subsidies (Tim Pawlenty banked on this when he called for ending federal funds for ethanol while in Iowa during last spring), but it's far easier to embrace those subsidies when competing for Iowans' votes.