The top-tier Republican presidential candidate pledged Friday to cut wasteful spending from the Defense Department and use the savings to support U.S. troops and veterans.
"I will not look for the military as a place to balance our budget," Romney told veterans who chatted with him over lunch at a local barbeque restaurant.
Romney's frame on the issue allows him to position himself as both a deficit hawk and military hawk. But his position takes billions of dollars off the table as Washington struggles to tame mounting debt.
Experts agree that the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the rate of defense spending unsustainable, and that Pentagon cuts must be part of any deficit solution. Indeed, deep Pentagon cuts are in order if a special congressional committee cannot agree on a deficit-reduction package by Thanksgiving.
Playing to his conservative audience, Romney's remarks lacked such context.
"I believe our military continues to be critical to protect our freedom. I do not see the world a safer place," Romney told veterans seated at wooden tables arranged in horseshoe formation to make the gathering suitable for TV.
"That does not mean there is not waste in our military system. There is," Romney said. "Anybody who spends any time with the government knows there is opportunity for improvement."
Citing no specifics, Romney said he would root out waste in the Pentagon and use the savings to rebuild the Navy and Air Force, maintain a force of 100,000 troops, and care for veterans.
State polls show that Romney has a serious chance of winning this state, though his record as a moderate governor and his Mormon faith are hurdles in a state that mixes conservatism and Christianity with its politics.