COLUMBIA, S.C. - Republican Mitt Romney said Thursday he could govern in the country's best interest because "I don't have lobbyists running my campaign," although Washington insiders are on his senior staff and registered lobbyists are top advisers.
One of them, Ron Kaufman, chairman of Washington-based Dutko Worldwide, regularly sits across the aisle from Romney on his campaign plane, participates in debate strategy sessions and just last week accompanied Romney to a lunch in Myrtle Beach with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
Another adviser, former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., is chairman of Romney's policy committee. He also is chief executive officer of Clark & Weinstock, and his corporate biography says he "provides strategic advice to institutions with matters before the legislative and executive branches of the federal government."
A third adviser, former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, who was at Romney's victory party in Michigan on Tuesday, is co-chairman of Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations and also is a registered lobbyist, according to federal records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
"I think it's time for Washington — Republican and Democrat — to have a leader who will fight to make sure we resolve the issues rather than continuously look for partisan opportunity for score-settling and for opportunities to link closer to lobbyists," Romney said during a news conference.
The former Massachusetts governor added: "I don't have lobbyists running my campaign."
Aides said later the comment was directed at rival John McCain, the Arizona senator whose campaign manager, Rick Davis, formerly was a registered lobbyist. McCain casts himself as a political maverick, ready to incur the wrath of colleagues and lobbyists as he pushes campaign finance legislation, exposes pork-barrel spending and engages in other good-government activity.
Asked about Kaufman, Romney noted he had said, "I don't have lobbyists running my campaign," before saying of Kaufman: "He's not running my campaign."
Reminded that Kaufman had joined Romney and his wife, Ann, on the plane throughout the Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan campaigns, Romney noted that Beth Myers, his former gubernatorial chief of staff, was his campaign manager and Kaufman was only an adviser.
"Ron is a wonderful friend, an adviser," Romney said. "He's not paid. He's an adviser like many others, but I do not have lobbyists running my campaign."
He later invited an Associated Press reporter who posed the questions to the front of his plane so Romney could outline the campaign's organizational chart.
In Las Vegas by day's end, Romney appealed for votes in Saturday's caucuses, in which 31 delegates will be awarded. "I want as many of them as I can possibly get," he told patrons at a packed restaurant. When a man offered to buy a beer for Romney, he laughed and said, "You can buy me one, but I can't drink it."
Romney, a Mormon, adheres to his church's ban on alcohol consumption. Fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are a potent voting bloc in Nevada.
Romney regularly declares he's not a politician, joking that four years as Massachusetts' governor were "not long enough to leave me infected."
He ran for the Senate in 1994 and his father, George, was a three-term governor of Michigan and Nixon administration Cabinet member, but he points to his 25 years as a business consultant and venture capitalist to buttress his argument.
As he did Thursday, he rails against Washington lobbyists, special interests and Beltway denizens, saying he'll bring an outsider's perspective to the White House.
The multimillionaire points to the more than $17 million in personal funds he has spent on the campaign and his public fundraising as proof he can govern free of Washington's special influences.
"Somebody doesn't put the kind of financial resources that I've put into this campaign, and the personal resources I've put into this campaign, in order to do favors for lobbyists," Romney said. "I'm going to Washington to help the American people."
It is because of his lack of Washington experience, however, that he surrounds himself with some of the capital city's prominent Republican voices.
Besides Kaufman, who served as White House political director under President George H.W. Bush, Romney gets policy advice from Weber, Talent and Sally Canfield, once a top aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert
Advice in targeting voters comes from Alex Gage and on polling from Jan van Lohuizen; both did similar tasks for President Bush. He also gets communications help from Barbara Comstock, a former Justice Department spokeswoman, and Matt Rhoades and Kevin Madden, veterans of the Republican National Committee and the office of former Rep. Tom DeLay, respectively.
Admakers Alex Castellanos, Stuart Stevens and Russ Schreifer all have worked for Bush.
Romney distinguished between that type of work and the work of paid influence-peddlers.
"I haven't been in Washington," he said. "I don't have lobbyists at my elbows that are arguing for one industry or another industry, and I do not have favors I have to repay to people who have been in Washington for years nor scores I have to settle."
Records filed with the Senate say that in 2007, Kaufman was personally listed as the lobbyist for New Balance Athletic Shoe, HNTB COS, American Pacific Corp., Worcester Business Development Corp., County of Los Angeles, State of Utah, CNS Inc., Americans for Democracy, West Orem Group, Globalcast LLC, and Global Demandwidth.
One of Dutko's clients is Citgo Petroleum Corp., the Venezuela-owned oil company. Since 1998, Citgo has paid Dutko $3 million in lobbying fees.
In its last report, midyear of 2007, Dutko reported a $175,000 payment from Citgo.