Obama and Romney break bread

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By Steve Holland

Washington - Republican Mitt Romney fell short in his White House bid, but he got a consolation prize of sorts on Thursday as President Barack Obama had him over for lunch in an attempt to display some political harmony in the bitterly divided capital.

The two men sat down for their meal in a West Wing dining room and there were efforts to keep the visit low key. Romney was brought in through a heavily guarded side entryway and officials said only the two men would be present for the lunch. News photographers were not allowed in for pictures.

The lunch, which lasted a little more than an hour, appeared to be little more than a goodwill gesture aimed at salving wounds left open from a bitter campaign in which Obama accused Romney of being an out-of-touch, secretive, rich elitist and Romney said his opponent did not understand how to fix the US economy.

They waged their battle in campaign speeches and toughly worded TV and radio ads that cost collectively hundreds of millions of dollars.

Obama is busily gearing up for his second term. The grandstand from which he will view his inaugural parade in January is being constructed on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

Romney, who was said to have been shocked that his campaign fell short, has few apparent immediate plans. A week ago he was photographed visiting Disneyland in California with several grandchildren.

White House spokesperson Jay Carney told reporters that Obama was interested in hearing some of Romney's ideas and sharing campaign experiences with him. Obama said during his election victory speech that he wanted to sit down and talk to Romney.

“Without giving any specifics, this was a conversation the president wanted to have with Governor Romney as he mentioned the night of the election,” said Carney.

There was no job offer for Romney in the works, he said.

It was not immediately clear whether the two men discussed the top priority facing the president and Congress, the prospect of reaching a deal to avoid a year-end fiscal calamity when Bush-era tax cuts expire and a variety of budget cuts kick in.

Romney had campaigned on sharply cutting government spending, saying any programme worth borrowing money from China to pay for would have to be justified. Obama has focused more on raising taxes on the wealthy. Both Democrats and Republicans are far apart on reaching a deal with a month to go.

While Republican leaders in Washington had whole-heartedly backed Romney's candidacy, there have been no indications that he has been brought into the conversation over the so-called “fiscal cliff”.

“Romney has never been viewed as a Washington insider and is one that never really connected with those inside the Beltway. And he tried to capitalise on that during the campaign. He does not have close ties to Republicans inside of Washington, but he's still respected as a very effective businessman,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.

Indeed, Republican leaders have shown every sign of wanting to put Romney in the rear-view mirror, after he was quoted as telling donors in a conference call that Obama won because his administration had doled out “gifts” to blacks, Hispanics and young voters to encourage them to turn out for him.

Party leaders have largely disavowed the comments and have engaged in some soul-searching on what it will take to get in position to win the White House in 2016.

The White House visit for Romney was a chance to begin rebuilding his political stature after his party's disappointing outcome in the November 6 election. He also paid a visit to his vice-presidential nominee, Representative Paul Ryan, the chairperson of the House Budget Committee and a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender.

Ryan said he remains grateful to Romney.

“I'm proud of the principles and ideas we advanced during the campaign and the commitment we share to expanding opportunity and promoting economic security for American families,” Ryan said in a statement.

Romney loyalists have been defending the honour of the former Massachusetts governor, who has remained largely out of sight since his loss.

“Losing is just losing,” Stuart Stevens, Romney's top campaign strategist, said in a Washington Post opinion article this week. “It's not a mandate to throw out every idea that the candidate championed, and I would hope it's not seen as an excuse to show disrespect for a good man who fought hard for values we admire.” - Reuters

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