Republican presidential contenders have crisscrossed the nation bashing President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plans as a colossal waste of taxpayer money. But with an awkward frequency, these same candidates are campaigning at businesses that benefited from the president's landmark stimulus package.
With the cameras rolling, the Republicans celebrate the hard work of local entrepreneurs in places like Pella, Iowa, and Milford, N.H., while later condemning the federal resources that helped those entrepreneurs navigate the economic downturn.
The campaign-trail rhetoric has intensified as Obama travels the country to call for a new package of spending and tax cuts to revitalize the nation's stalled economy.
"He came into office and said, `Oh I know how to create jobs; I'll spend billions and billions, trillions of dollars,'" former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney recently told cheering supporters at the Derryfield Country Club, referring to Obama. "I don't happen to think Barack Obama's a bad guy. I just don't think he's got a clue."
But Romney himself made at least two campaign appearances this summer with stimulus beneficiaries. There are a half dozen such examples involving several candidates, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, among them.
Huntsman last month toured the New Hampshire manufacturer Cirtronics, which received five stimulus-related contracts worth $3.3 million since 2009, according to data posted by the federal government. A week later, Romney campaigned at the Iowa-based Vermeer Corp., which benefited from nearly $200,000 in stimulus funds. And Tim Pawlenty, before he left the presidential race, made similar visits in each of the two early voting states.
This phenomenon has produced negative media attention in isolated cases, but taken together the visits highlight the candidates' complicated relationships with the $78 billion stimulus program many Republican primary voters hate. The issue also underscores the often hypocritical nature of American politics _ politicians usually oppose the other party's policies, but support the people who benefit from them. The apparent inconsistencies offer opponents _ Republicans and Democrats alike _ fuel for political attacks.
"Every one of these candidates has a potential problem with respect to the stimulus," said Michael Dennehy, a GOP operative who led Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign four years ago.
Even those Republicans who have not used stimulus beneficiaries as campaign props _ such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry _ may have trouble reconciling campaign rhetoric with their records.
Perry once made headlines by refusing $556 million in stimulus funds for his state's unemployment insurance program. But since February 2009, Texas government agencies and businesses have received more than $17 billion from the recovery act. That's more than any state in the union but one.
And the influx of stimulus funds _ some of which Perry used to plug budget holes _ came over the same period Texas enjoyed significant job growth, an accomplishment Perry cites at nearly every campaign stop. But he railed against the federal policy in his 2010 book, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington."
"We are fed up with bailout after bailout and stimulus plan after stimulus plan, each one of which tosses principle out the window along with taxpayer money," he wrote.
Bachmann, a conservative firebrand who regularly knocks the federal stimulus, held a recent campaign event at South Carolina's Trident Technical College, an institution that last year received a stimulus grant to help boost its healthcare education programs. Critics cried hypocrisy, but her record as the representative for Minnesota's 6th Congressional District raises further questions.
Bachmann has repeatedly petitioned the Obama administration to send federal dollars _ including stimulus funds _ to her district.
"I voted against the stimulus and I was very public against the stimulus," Bachmann, leader of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, said last month on Fox News Sunday. "After the stimulus was passed and the money was there, why should my constituents or anyone else be disadvantaged?"
Liberal attack groups, expected to play a significant role as the presidential contest goes forward, will ensure such questions are not lost on voters.
"Nothing raises the hypocrisy meter faster than the Republican presidential candidates talking about the economic recovery act. They love to pander to their base by demonizing the bill, yet they are all too eager to seek funding for projects in their district, to use federal dollars to balance their state's budget, or to hold campaign events at successful companies who received stimulus funding," said Ty Matsdorf, spokesman for the independent political group American Bridge, recently established to help Democrats.
Some campaigns and companies involved defend appearances with stimulus beneficiaries as coincidences in states where hundreds of businesses and institutions accepted federal assistance over the last two years. Indeed, entities in the early voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina received a combined $8 billion from the 2009 package to date.
"There was a tremendous amount of money that went to all sectors. It would be very hard for a Mitt Romney, or a presidential candidate from any party, to go to any manufacturer and find someone who was not directly, or indirectly, affected somehow," said Steven Cohen, president of Ohio-based Screen Machine Industries, which hosted a Romney event in July and received stimulus contracts worth nearly $220,000.
"I think it would be irresponsible for an American manufacturer not to go after their fair share," Cohen told The Associated Press this week. "The question is whether it was a wise investment. That's for someone else to answer."
The stimulus package created or saved as many as 3.3 million jobs and reduced the nation's unemployment rate by as much as 1.8 points, according to updated estimates provided by the Congressional Budget Office in late August.
The campaigns say local companies shouldn't be penalized simply because they took advantage of the federal program.
"I'm just not going to hold a failed policy against somebody," Huntsman told The Associated Press when asked about his Cirtronics visit.
Democrats love to highlight Huntsman's previous statement as Utah governor that the stimulus package "probably was not large enough." The campaign has since clarified that Huntsman was referring to tax cuts, which he says should have been deeper.