LOS ANGELES -- Making his first turn on NBC's "Tonight Show" this election cycle, Mitt Romney mostly played the straight man on Tuesday -- but allowed himself a jab at his rival Rick Santorum for losing his cool over the weekend.
Santorum created a kerfuffle by scolding New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny in Wisconsin on Sunday after the journalist asked him to clarify his remark during a speech that Romney was "the worst Republican in the country" to run against President Barack Obama. The former Pennsylvania senator lashed out with a curse word -- telling the reporter to "quit distorting my words. If I see it, it's bull --."
During his opening monologue, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno joked that the show's censors had rejected Santorum as a guest because his language was "too dirty." Romney took his cue a few minutes later when Leno pressed him to reveal his thoughts on possible vice presidential picks through a word association game.
Romney described New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as "indomitable," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as "the American Dream," Wisconsin congressman Paul D. Ryan as "creative," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as "energetic" and real estate magnate Donald Trump as "huge."
"Rick Santorum?" Leno asked.
"Um, press secretary," Romney replied.
Before the episode aired, Santorum was asked about Romney's quip by a Reuters reporter at a campaign event in Wisconsin: "Somebody needs to work on his jokes," he replied.
While other candidates have visited the late-night TV couch armed with zingers, Romney apparently felt no pressure to try for laughs. In a short campaign video filmed by an aide on the way to NBC studios in Burbank, the GOP candidate revealed that "his colleagues" at his Boston headquarters had offered this advice: "Don't try and be funny, just answer the questions straight."
"I'm rarely funny on purpose," Romney added, "so we'll see what happens tonight."
During the Leno session, Romney talked about plans to reduce taxes for middle-income Americans, increase the size of the armed forces and do away with Obama's health care law. He also reiterated his argument that his three GOP rivals would not be able to catch up with him in the race to win the 1,144 delegates needed to cinch the nomination.
Asked about Santorum's comment to the Christian Broadcasting Network that he wouldn't rule out the possibility of being Romney's vice president -- despite his regular criticisms -- Romney said his rival was "basically a good guy."
"I'm happy with him saying he'd like to be part of an administration with me -- nothing wrong with that," Romney said. "If he's the VP, that's better. I'd rather be the president -- let him be the vice president."
Deflecting Leno's persistent questions about whom he'd pick as a running mate if he were to win the Republican nomination, Romney took a dig at Leno's rivalry with David Letterman, the host of CBS' "Late Show."
"I'll tell you what, I can do you a favor with this," Romney said. "I'll choose David Letterman, help us both out."
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