DES MOINES — Emerging on the campaign trail in Iowa after largely shunning the state, Mitt Romney was confronted Thursday by hecklers on corporate tax policy and told them, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
Romney was speaking at the Iowa State Fair’s soapbox Thursday, but when it was time for the question-and-answer session, the mood turned heated, with a small group of angry hecklers calling on Romney to support raising taxes on the wealthy to help finance social entitlement programs.
“We have to make sure that the promises we make in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are promises we can keep, and there are various ways of doing that,” Romney said. “One is, we can raise taxes on people.”
“Corporations!” the protesters shouted, suggesting that Romney, as president, should raise taxes on large businesses. “Corporations!”
“Corporations are people, my friend,” Romney responded, as the hecklers shouted back, “No, they’re not!”
“Of course they are,” Romney said, chuckling slightly. “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?”
It was a telling, unscripted moment for Romney likely to be replayed on YouTube. In an instant, he seemed to humanize himself by pointedly squabbling with the group of hecklers, showing flashes of anger and defying his reputation as a sometimes stilted, unfeeling candidate.
But at the same time, he seemed to reinforce another image of himself as an out-of-touch businessman who sees the world from the executive suite.
Romney’s remarks drew a quick response from Democratic Party officials.
“It is a shocking admission from a candidate — and a party — that shamelessly puts forward policies to help large corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class, seniors and students,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
The remarks and the reaction touch a sensitive spot for Romney. His past as co-founder of Bain Capital, a private equity firm, gives him the business credentials that he says are needed to steer a troubled economy. But Democrats have depicted Bain under his tenure as a company that destroyed jobs through corporate takeovers in search of profits.
Thursday was Romney’s most fiery day on the campaign trail this week, even before the hecklers, who were affiliated with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an organizing group, drew him into several aggressive exchanges. Wearing a navy blue shirt and brown jeans, Romney took the stage with sweat already glistening on his brow and upper lip. The sweat trickled down his cheek as he worked himself into animated rhythm in a 10-minute speech that criticized President Barack Obama.
“We’re led by a man who is a fine fella, but he’s out of his depth and doesn’t understand how the economy works,” said Romney, who is leading the Republican field in many polls but is not taking part in Saturday’s Iowa straw poll.
When the questions turned combative, Romney held his ground.
“If you want to speak, you can speak, but right now it’s my turn,” he said to applause, leaning into the crowd to cut off an elderly man who was yelling at him about Social Security.
“You came here to listen!” the man retorted, to which Romney replied: “No, no, I came here to talk. Hold on a second, let me speak.”
Moments later, when he realized he wasn’t changing any of the hecklers’ minds, he said they were free to vote for someone else.
“I’m not going to raise taxes — that’s my answer,” he said. “And if you want someone who can raise taxes, you can vote for Barack Obama.”