ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Mitt Romney is trying harder than ever these days to stay on script – and keep his traveling national press corps at arm's length.
The latest clash came Wednesday when aides to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee blocked the reporters who cover Romney daily from asking him questions at the "rope line" separating him and his supporters.
The incident was a prime example of the pattern of tense interactions with the press that have marked the Romney campaign for months. The candidate often seems eager to chat about mundane things – the food on the charter airplane, whether he has a lucky tie – with a press corps he's come to know well and readily recognizes.
But his staff frequently limits access to a candidate known for making awkward, if not politically troublesome, statements during unscripted moments – and Romney very rarely answers challenging questions on the issues of the day as he campaigns.
"You have some work to do here," Romney told reporters on his campaign plane, waving at a basket of snacks as he selected a package of Grandma's Vanilla Cream sandwich cookies.
But asked a question about Vice President Joe Biden's attacks on his record at Bain Capital during a speech in Ohio, the former Massachusetts governor simply said: "No interviews."
Instead, Romney did a lengthy interview with Ed Morrissey, a conservative blogger.
It's a window into how he might conduct himself as president. After he was elected governor of Massachusetts, for example, Romney closed off a set of public elevators in the Boston statehouse and prohibited press access to the lobby outside the governor's office. The area was previously open to the press, and his successor, Gov. Deval Patrick, re-opened the elevator and the lobby after he took office.
Wednesday's incident came after Romney delivered brief remarks to Florida supporters and walked over to where supporters were cordoned off and waiting to meet him. A group of reporters left an area designated for the media and tried to get within earshot of Romney when a campaign staffer put out her arms to keep reporters from walking past her.
After a brief standoff, reporters from a number of national outlets circumvented the staffers and moved close enough to hear Romney.
A few hours later, Romney's campaign acknowledged a mistake.
"This was an error on the part of the campaign staff and volunteers. We have reminded them that press is allowed on the rope line to record the governor's interactions with voters," spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan, making clear the agency wasn't responsible for the policy, said: "The Secret Service does not restrict movement of the press into a general public area or their movement within the general public area."
Rope lines are a staple of political campaigns, but a candidate's presence there can lead to some memorable moments – and Romney has sometimes been candid in such situations. As Democrats marked the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, Romney told traveling reporters that "even Jimmy Carter" would have made that decision – a sharp quip that the campaign later softened as they muted their criticism of the Obama team's focus on the occasion.
And earlier this year, Romney was on a rope line during the Daytona 500 when an Associated Press reporter asked him about his familiarity with the sport.
"I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners," he said, a comment that later drew criticism from Democrats seeking to cast him as out of touch.
Trying to control a campaign's message isn't unique to Romney's campaign. White House reporters traveling with Obama sometimes are limited in how they can approach the president on a rope line. Still, reporters are able to observe Obama interacting with voters on airport tarmacs when he walks over to greet waiting crowds.
Obama often doesn't answer questions on rope lines, though he sometimes will chat with reporters. He recently told some that he won a basketball game he played with actors George Clooney and Tobey Maguire. The president prefers taking questions in formal interview settings.
Romney rarely does interviews with print media, preferring conservative broadcast outlets. He also regularly tapes interviews with local TV and radio reporters when he visits different states. But he doesn't often allow himself to be grilled by the reporters who know him and his record best and who tend to ask the toughest questions.
The campaign also limits opportunities to watch Romney interact with voters. It says he regularly meets with middle-class families before events, but those meetings always take place in private. The campaign does not release the names of those attending.
His campaign insists that almost all interactions between reporters and campaign staff be either anonymous or completely off the record. And he's only just now starting to allow his traveling press corps to share his campaign plane regularly. News organizations that travel with presidential candidates pay their own way, including plane fare, meals, hotels and other expenses, often thousands of dollars per day.
His aides are tight-lipped on even the most mundane issues, like travel logistics. And they are visibly averse to allowing the candidate to step into unscripted situations.
Even Romney finds a little humor in the sometimes tense relationship. While talking to reporters at the rear of his plane recently, Romney looked a few rows back at Rick Gorka, his traveling press secretary. "Rick is about to pass out. Gorka is," he said with a laugh and added, as if speaking for Gorka, "`What are you doing?'"
Gorka responded by waving his hand in a "wrap it up" motion.