SALT LAKE CITY – Mitt Romney returned to Salt Lake City on Saturday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Winter Games he helped lead, but the GOP presidential candidate has come under attack for urging the federal government to provide big bucks for Olympic expenses.
So instead of touting his role as savior in the wake of a bribery scandal, as he usually does, Romney told finger-wagging stories about cutting the budget for decorating the city and for building the giant cauldron that held the Olympic flame.
"We had to cut back on spending, as you probably know," Romney told the crowd gathered at the EnergySolutions arena for a performance of Stars on Ice.
He walked in with figure skater and gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, who offered the argument Romney usually makes on the campaign trail. Because of "the fire he lit from within, the games were a tremendous success," she said, referring to the games' theme song, "Light the Fire Within."
Romney was hired to lead the Salt Lake Olympic Committee after a bribery scandal threatened the games. The success of those Olympics, he says during the campaign, help make the case for his bid for the White House.
"I led an Olympics out of the shadows of scandal," Romney told conservative activists this month, repeating a claim he has made dozens of times on the campaign trail.
His time running the games has proved a boon in other ways. Ahead of his remarks, Romney held a high-dollar fundraiser in Salt Lake with many of the business and community leaders he worked with at the Olympics.
The fundraiser was hosted by Fraser Bullock, who helped him run the Salt Lake Games. Bullock is also major donor to an super PAC that is supporting Romney's bid. Several people listed as associated with the group, Restore Our Future, were on a list of special guests for Saturday night's ice skating ceremonies.
In brief remarks to Olympic staff and volunteers and again at the skating event Saturday night, Romney said he cut millions from the budget to decorate the city and argued some of the venues built in Salt Lake cost much less than they had in other cities that had hosted winter games.
Romney said he cut the cauldron's budget back to $500,000 and eventually secured an $8 million donation to pay for the enormous, clear glass structure where the Olympic flame burned during the 2002 games.
Romney's opponents are attacking his record at the games, with both Democrats and GOP presidential rival Rick Santorum criticizing Romney for helping to secure millions in federal earmarks that helped cover Olympic costs.
"One of the things he talks about most is how he heroically showed up on the scene and bailed out and resolved the problems of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games," Santorum said during a campaign stop in Columbus, Ohio. "He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic Games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail out the Salt Lake games — in an earmark."
Democrats made those claims, too, in a web video released Friday. They highlighted comments from Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee who's a longtime critic of federal support for the Olympics and other international sporting events.
McCain called the Olympics "an incredible pork-barrel project for Salt Lake City and its environs."
Romney's campaign says most of the money went to provide security in the wake of Sept. 11. The games were held about five months after the terrorist attacks and were the first major international event since the al-Qaida strikes.
"There is a pretty wide gulf between seeking money for post-9/11 security at the Olympics and seeking earmarks for polar bear exhibits at the Pittsburgh Zoo," spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement, taking a dig at Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator. "Mitt Romney wants to ban earmarks. Sen. Santorum wants more 'Bridges to Nowhere.'"
That's a reference to two proposed bridge projects priced at some $450 million, in sparsely populated areas of Alaska, that became a symbol for the proliferation of thousands of earmarks, or special projects sought by individual lawmakers, that were part of 2005 transportation legislation.
While security costs did increase dramatically after Sept. 11, Romney and his team pushed for federal aid long before the attacks. In the fall of 2001, the government already planned to spend about $342 million in non-Sept. 11 related costs, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Romney listed getting more federal dollars as one of the three priorities for his Olympic committee almost as soon as he took the reins in spring of 1999.
"I was going to be spending a lot of time in D.C.," Romney wrote in his book about the games, called "Turnaround."
And McCain's tirade came in 2000, well before the attacks.
After Romney took over, lobbyists for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee asked for money to support a tree planting program, anti-doping educational programs, cultural outreach, communications and Weather Service funding, among other areas. The committee hired lobbyists from top firms in Washington to help with the effort.
All told, according to Romney's account, the government spent about $600 million helping the Salt Lake Olympic Committee. An additional $1.1 billion was planned for projects like roads and bridges, infrastructure improvement projects that the government assumed would have paid for eventually, though the timing of the games may have sped up the construction.
Romney's record at the Olympics is viewed positively, and business and community leaders in Salt Lake City widely say he deserves significant credit for helping to lead the games in the wake of the bribery scandal.
Still, Romney is running as a deficit hawk and accusing rival Santorum of asking for millions in earmarks during his years serving as a senator from Pennsylvania. Earmarks are a potent issue with the conservative tea party voters that are a key part of the GOP primary.
"If you want a fiscal conservative, you can't vote for Rick Santorum. He says he's a deficit hawk. He's not!" Romney told supporters in Boise, Idaho, on Friday.
Santorum on Saturday accused Romney of hypocrisy in those attacks. "Now Governor Romney is suggesting, 'Oh Rick Santorum earmarked,'" Santorum said. "Does the word hypocrisy come to mind?"