by Fergus Cullen (fergus@ferguscullen.com)

PORTSMOUTH – Before giving a speech about the virtues of the free enterprise system to the Portsmouth Rotary Club today, Mitt Romney faced a bit of a free market test himself.

Portsmouth Rotarians began their meeting by conducting two quick auctions. The first item, a pair of tickets to Sunday’s NASCAR race in Loudon, sold for $100. The second item, a Mitt Romney autograph, sold for $275 after the auctioneer assured the crowd of 120 Rotarians and more than 20 members of the media that it would be worth considerably more after the day’s speaker became President.

Romney spoke without notes and appeared in his 2011 trademark checkered shirt, no jacket, and no tie. He began his 15 minute stump speech emphasizing his career in the private sector by congratulating Rotarians for working in what Romney called “the real economy.” Channeling Milton Friedman, Romney praised America’s political and economic freedom and the power of the profit incentive to motivate innovation, calling freedom and capitalism the “antidote to poverty” around the world.

The speech was politely received by the Rotarians, but was not broken by applause. This might be expected at a Rotary Club, whose membership tends to be politically agnostic and would include Democrats and others who are not likely Republican primary voters. Attendance at the weekly luncheon was up as many extra guests from other clubs came to hear the big name speaker.

Romney fielded five written questions, screened and selected by a Rotarian, in Q&A. On the debt limit, Romney avoided speaking to the specifics of negotiations, but stated his support for a plan that cuts spending, caps spending, and includes a commitment to pursuing a balance budget amendment. Going further, Romney commented that a long term solution nees to include making entitlement spending “sustainable” so social security, Medicare, and Medicaid don’t “overwhelm” the economy.

On Iraq, Romney voiced support for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year. On Afghanistan, Romney opposed having a timetable for withdrawal based on American domestic political concerns while expressing sympathy for the sentiment that, after 10 years, at some point the Afghans have to become responsible for their own security.

On Israel, Romney voiced unequivocal support for “our best friend in the Middle East” and criticized President Obama’s remarks earlier in the year chastising Israeli settlements.

Asked what he would do should a “recalcitrant” Congress fail to reach a long term solution on the debt, Romney cited his own experience working with an overwhelming Democratic legislature in Massachusetts to illustrate his ability to work with people on a bipartisan basis even when they disagree.

A final question concerning American jobs going overseas provided Romney an opportunity to recap his defense of capitalism and limited government as the most effective means of growing the domestic economy.

Romney made no mention of his rivals for the Republican nomination and drew no contrasts, direct or subtle, with other candidates. Rotarian Stella Scamman, a Romney supporter, introduced Romney to members, but he did not work the room aggressively. Rotarians who sought him out were able to get a photo or an autograph.