Mitt Romney keeps low profile amid nastiness on debt ceiling. Is that smart?

With Mitt Romney's rivals for the GOP presidential nomination trying to score points in the bitter debate over raising the debt ceiling, how wise is it for the frontrunner to try to remain above the fray?

Charlie Neibergall/AP/File
Mitt Romney, left, talks with former Iowa Gov. Bob Ray after speaking at the Mediacom 2012 Presidential Candidate Series in Des Moines, Iowa, May 27. Romney has kept a low profile over the debt debate.

The increasingly bitter political wrangling over raising the debt limit and reducing the deficit has drawn in the majority of Republican presidential candidates, with some pledging never to raise the debt limit and others mincing few words in their criticism of President Obama and the Democrats.

Except for the frontrunner, Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor has stayed low key as the rhetoric heats up between Mr. Obama and congressional Republican leaders, who are engaged in high-stakes negotiations to avert a default on the national debt beginning Aug 2.

With Mr. Romney’s rivals for the nomination trying to gain traction, is this a good strategy?

When asked by a reporter for comment on the dispute, the Romney campaign will dutifully send out a statement that is critical of Obama, albeit in measured tones. But according to the Wall Street Journal, it dates to April.

“President Obama is responsible for frightening new levels of federal spending and deficits,” the statement reads. “As a result, the nation has amassed an unheard-of level of debt that imperils our financial standing in the world. I’ve never seen an enterprise in more desperate need of a turnaround than the US government.

“We cannot lose sight of the need to move the president toward meaningful fiscal responsibility. A vote on raising the debt ceiling has to be accompanied by a major effort to restructure and reduce the size of government.”

The campaign also notes that Romney recently signed the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” pledge organized by a coalition of conservative groups. The pledge opposes any debt limit increase unless three conditions are met: substantial spending cuts; enforceable spending caps; and passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.

Romney’s cautious approach stands in contrast to the sharper lines of his competitors. In her first campaign ad, released last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota pledged never to vote for a debt-ceiling increase. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas holds the same position. In an oped Tuesday in the Des Moines Register, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty accused Obama and congressional Democrats of “using the debt ceiling debate to threaten default if their thirst for more taxes and spending isn’t satisfied.”

Romney’s competitors have also chided him for laying low, suggesting it shows a lack of resolve. But in fact, Romney’s decision to play it low-key is smart, says Ford O’Connell, co-founder of the conservative Civic Forum PAC.

“Governor Romney has done the bare minimum to appease fiscal conservatives and tea paryters by signing the Cut, Cap, and Balance pledge,” says Mr. O’Connell. “And given the number of twists and turns this debate is going to take before we come to a solution, it’s better to keep your options open.”

Romney officials have pointed out that the negotiations are taking place behind closed doors, and the campaign is not privy to developments as they unfold. Instead, Romney has focused on the economy.

But that hasn’t stopped top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod from also weighing in on Romney’s tight-lipped approach to the debt talks. In a post Tuesday on the Obama campaign’s Facebook page, Mr. Axelrod said the GOP presidential candidates had “fallen in line with the most strident voices in their party, rejecting any solution that would include closing gold-plated tax loopholes.”

Axelrod singled out an exception, Romney, who “has refused to even address the issue.”

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