DES MOINES, Iowa – Republican Mitt Romney denies any responsibility for hiring illegal immigrants as workers at his home, insisting it was the fault of contractors and calling for tighter federal guidelines to verify the status of workers.
Asked by a reporter Friday if he shouldn't go the "extra mile" because of his business background and his strong advocacy of clamping down on illegal immigration in his presidential bid, the former Massachusetts governor shot back: "And what's the extra mile? So for instance, if I go to a restaurant, do I make sure all the waiters there are all legal?"
"We have a country where there's not an employment verification system that allows companies to know who's in the country legally and illegally. And I've certainly never proposed that homeowners have a responsibility when they hire a contractor or company to then go out and inquire of the company's employees whether they happen to be legal or not. That's not the course of this country. It's even potentially against the law," he said.
"The individuals in my home were not my employees. They were hired by a company. The company made a mistake in judgment. And that's why I terminated my relationship with them."
He was responding to reports that undocumented yard workers and painters engaged in work at his Massachusetts home.
On another topic, Romney said his speech a day earlier on "Faith in America" was about just that and was not intended to build support for his campaign among conservative Christians. "The speech was not about politics. I don't know how the politics work on it, to tell you the truth," he said.
He spoke with reporters in Des Moines after a speech Friday in which he called for increasing U.S. military strength.
Thursday's religion speech, in which Romney discussed his Mormon faith, has drawn mixed responses from evangelicals here and in Southern states. In the speech, he pledged to serve the interests of the nation, not the church, if elected president.
"The speech was about faith in America and religious pluralism, the role of faith in America and the need to maintain the religious base of our country, to keep God in the public square," Romney said.
As for illegal immigration, the story of the lawn care workers dates back to last year. Republican rival Rudy Giuliani emphasized it at the most recent GOP debate, talking about Romney's "sanctuary mansion."
On Friday, the Boston Globe reported that a Boston-area company that painted Romney's Belmont mansion in recent months is under investigation by state authorities and accused of relying on subcontractors who exploited workers, including illegal immigrants.
Romney hired Olympic Painting and Roofing of Peabody, Mass., to paint the salmon-colored house in August, and the work was completed in October, according to Olympic, the Globe reported.
In his speech focusing on the military Friday, at the Fort Des Moines military museum, Romney noted that it was Pearl Harbor Day and paid special tribute to those who died in World War II. He also called for expanding the all-volunteer military and rejected a suggestion from a member of the audience, during a question-and-answer session, that the next president reinstate the military draft.
"I do not believe we need to have a draft, or return to the draft, to have a strong and able military," Romney said.
He emphasized his proposals to give the military new equipment to replace that worn out in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to increase the size of the active military to 1.6 million from 1.5 million, and to increase military spending from its current 3.8 percent of the nation's overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, to 4 percent.
For most of the past year, Romney held a lead in polls in Iowa's first-in-the-nation contest on Jan. 3. But he now faces tough competition for the votes of evangelical Christians and other religious voters from Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, who has been surging.
An AP-Ipsos poll on Friday showed Huckabee had vaulted from far back in the GOP field into second place nationally. Former New York Mayor Giuliani remains the front-runner at 26 percent. Huckabee now has 18 percent, up from 10 percent in an AP-Ipsos survey a month ago and 3 percent in July. Arizona Sen. John McCain has 13 percent, Romney 12 percent and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson 11 percent.
The audience at the military museum was a mix between people wearing Romney stickers and those who said they were still undecided.
Dixie Belluchi-Watters, 46, of Des Moines, brought her 12-year-old son, Tucker Watters. They sat up front, both wearing Romney T-shirts. She said she had been a Giuliani supporter but was won over by Romney. "He seems to be a genuine individual committed to his faith," she said.
"We're Christians, but I'm voting for the president of the United States, not pastor of my church," she said.