From Michael Levenson, Globe Staff
The Globe's disclosure this week that Mitt Romney put his Irish setter into a dog carrier on the roof of his station wagon for a 12-hour trip to Ontario in 1983 has become a surprising flashpoint in the presidential campaign.
TIME.com's Swampland blog has been flooded with more than 200 comments from readers complaining of animal cruelty, YouTube viewers have posted satirical videos, and hundreds of personal blogs are brimming with opinions and jokes.
For some, the story has become an occasion to consider larger issues of ethics and animal abuse. Romney, who has built an image as a strong manager, is now facing concerns about his ability to empathize with the less powerful, in this case, his dog, Seamus, riding atop his station wagon.
"I'll admit that I`m coming from a dog-centric point of view," Tucker Carlson, the conservative pundit, said Thursday on MSNBC. "But I'm feeling that maybe Mitt Romney lost my vote here. Do you need to be a PETA member to be disturbed by the fact that this guy put a dog on the roof of his car? Does that bother you?"
For some critics, the answer was yes.
"Well, I am a dog owner, and I can say with certainty that strapping your dog to the roof of the car for a 12-hour drive, windshield or no windshield, is, well, nuts," David Kravitz wrote on BlueMassGroup, a liberal blog. "It also strikes me as classic Romney: it solves a problem efficiently, in a business-like manner, and with no regard whatsoever for the suffering that the solution may cause."
The Globe learned of the incident from Romney family friends during its reporting for a seven-part series this week on the candidate's life, and Romney family members confirmed the facts.
Family members told the Globe that Romney attached a special windshield onto Seamus' carrier to protect him from the wind. Romney was traveling that summer with his wife, five sons, and Seamus to his parent's cottage on Lake Huron. But hours into the ride, Seamus apparently suffered diarrhea, which ran down the back window of the car. Romney's sons, all under 14, howled in disgust. Romney pulled off the road into a service station. There, he borrowed a hose, washed down Seamus and the car, and they drove on to Ontario.
As soon as it was published in the Globe Thursday, the episode became fodder for bloggers.
TIME's Ana Marie Cox was among the first to weigh in. Under the headline, "Romney's Cruel Canine Vacation," she quoted Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, calling Seamus' ride "a lesson in cruelty" for Romney's sons.
"Thinking of the wind, the weather, the speed, the vulnerability, the isolation on the roof, it is commonsense that any dog who's under extreme stress might show that stress by losing control of his bowels," Newkirk told Cox. "That alone should have been sufficient indication that the dog was, basically, being tortured."
Cox also pointed out that Massachusetts law prohibits carrying an animal "in or upon a vehicle, or otherwise, in an unnecessarily cruel or inhuman manner or in a way and manner which might endanger the animal carried thereon."
Soon, a blogger posted a video of a singing dog atop a station wagon, another hawked T-shirts on the Internet that said "I do not support the Romney Fresh Air Tour of Canada," and a rival campaign circulated a clip from National Lampoon's "Vacation."
The issue gained enough momentum that by the time Romney landed in Pittsburgh for a campaign stop Thursday, reporters were ready with questions. Romney told them that Seamus liked his rooftop perch.
"He scrambled up there every time we went on trips," Romney said. "He got [up] all by himself and enjoyed it."
And Romney noted that he has never been one of PETA's favorite politicians.
"PETA has not been my fan over the years," Romney said. "PETA was after me for having a rodeo at the Olympics and was very, very upset about that. PETA was after me when I went quail hunting in Georgia. And they're not happy that my dog likes fresh air."