DEL RAY BEACH, Fla. — On the eve of the final presidential debate — on foreign policy — Mitt Romney declined Sunday to say whether he would favor one-on-one negotiations with Iran to resolve the deadlock over that country’s nuclear program.
The New York Times reported Sunday that U.S. officials have said Iran is willing to restart one-on-one talks after the Nov. 6 presidential election, and administration officials have told the Los Angeles Times that Iran may be prepared to reengage in those discussions. But Romney campaign officials largely dismissed the report, noting that White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the U.S. had not agreed to one-on-one talks.
Romney spent most of the day in debate preparations with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, his Obama stand-in, and other advisors. But he made a brief appearance before reporters — a rare occurrence these days with polls tied and the election so close — to flip a coin determining the starting team for a flag football match between his aides and some members of the traveling press corps.
As Romney stood on the sidelines, a reporter asked the Republican nominee whether as president, he would be open to one-on-one talks with Iran. Romney aide Garrett Jackson, interrupted: "Guys this is a football game. Come on. Are you kidding me?"
"I thought you were talking about one-on-one talks with the president,” Romney said. “I was about to answer."
Romney also brushed off a question about several new polls showing him tied with Obama, as well as a query about whether he was feeling ready for the debate: "I'm ready for football," he said. (Romney did not play in the match, but his wife, Ann Romney, did — donning the campaign’s team’s red T-shirt, which she knotted at the waist, and throwing a touchdown pass.)
On the Sunday shows, Romney’s surrogates dismissed the new reports on Iran’s willingness to talk. Portman cautioned against any negotiations that would exclude the five other world powers — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — who are involved in efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program. During talks that collapsed earlier this year, representatives from Iran argued that the six nations were asking for too many concessions and had not offered a ‘balanced’ proposal.
“The last thing we would want to do is abandon our allies and make it a one-on-one” conversation, Portman said during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
A senior administration official told the Los Angeles Times that President Obama was also skeptical of the notion that Iran is ready to resume talks, given its history of using diplomacy as a ruse to buy more time. One administration official said that any talks with Iran would be in consultation with the five world powers.
Romney has never directly addressed whether he would engage in one-on-one talks with Iran. But he has hinted that he would not, criticizing Obama for saying during the 2008 campaign that he would sit down with Iranian leaders without preconditions. (Obama has never ruled out bilateral talks with Iran — a contrast that is likely to come up in Monday night’s debate.)
During an address to the AIPAC Policy Conference earlier this year, Romney called Obama’s willingness to engage in face-to-face talks “naïve.”
“There are some in this administration who argue that Iran’s leaders are ‘rational,’ and that we can do business with them. The president speaks of common interests,” Romney said in the address to supporters of Israel. “Let me be clear: We do not have common interests with a terrorist regime. Their interest is in the destruction of Israel and the domination of the Middle East. It is profoundly irrational to suggest that the ayatollahs think the way we do or share our values. They do not.”
Romney added that he would be “ready to engage in diplomacy” but also “just as ready to engage our military might.”
The Romney campaign has not issued any statement on the New York Times report, and does not plan to do so before the debate.
Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.