They have two named witnesses claiming the question was put to him at a private luncheon in Vegas in August. I’m sure that it was, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But first, which question, precisely, was put to him? Was it, “Will you have Muslims in your cabinet?” Or was it, “Do you think you need a Muslim in your cabinet to effectively fight the war on terror?” Mitt said this afternoon that Mansour Ijaz asked him the second question, not the first. TPM’s two witnesses paraphrase the question thusly:

“His question was something to the effect of, ‘Considering the problems that we have with the Jihadist movement and the problems we have with the Middle East, would you consider having a Muslim as an adviser that can guide you as to what kind of decisions to make with regards to the Middle East?'”

He said, ‘Probably not.'”

And:

“My question was, ‘Look, with the amount of Muslims that don’t trust the United States, would you consider it prudent to put a Muslim in your cabinet?’ He said, ‘Most likely not.’

Both of those formulations are equivalent to the second question — whether we need Muslims in the cabinet to have a more effective foreign policy — not whether they should be summarily disqualified from cabinet positions. TPM claims, though, that Mitt followed up with something suggesting the latter view:

[Irma] Aguirre added that what Romney said next surprised her. “He said something to the effect of, ‘They’re radicals. There’s no talking to them. There’s no negotiating with them.’ I can’t remember the exact words he used, but that was the explanation. We left thinking, ‘Wow, what a racist comment. He automatically assumed that all Muslims are radical.'”

The other witness, George Harris, corroborated it:

[H]e went on to say what Irma said he said. I was more angry than she was. I said, ‘I’m not gonna support this guy.’ If he’s gonna be President of the United States, don’t you think you need to be a little more open minded?”

I said that I believe he was asked the question they claim they asked him. Why? Because it was mentioned two months ago in the September issue of George Harris’s magazine, Liberty Watch. The incident is recounted here by editor Mike Zigler — except, curiously, the incendiary quote about Muslims being intractable “radicals” isn’t mentioned. Zigler isn’t favorably disposed towards Romney, either, so he has no obvious reason to omit it: He knocks neoconservatism and laments the fact that Republicans aren’t more solicitous of Muslims like … Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, per his aborted attempt to propagandize at Ground Zero. Zigler doesn’t say if he was at the luncheon with Aguirre and Harris but he clearly knows the details of the exchange with Mitt. In which case, why not include the money quote about “radicals”? It would have been an exclamation point on his thesis. It’s also worth noting that the question asked of Mitt as framed by Zigler — “If you are elected President, will you include any Muslim members in your cabinet?” — is considerably simpler than Aguirre’s and Harris’s versions of it, although I’m not sure which way that cuts. Maybe it suggests that Zigler wasn’t there and doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of everything Mitt said. But even if he wasn’t, wouldn’t Harris have told him what Mitt said about Muslims supposedly being “radicals”? That’s a considerably more interesting detail than him saying he probably wouldn’t appoint one to help fight the war on terror. Seems like an odd tidbit to skip.

Finally, what exactly is Mitt’s motive supposed to be here in the left’s imagining? Presumably it’s that he’s trying to appeal to the conservative base by slipping on a “No Muslims Allowed” sandwich board and demagoging religious minorities to oblivion. But if so, why is he insisting that he didn’t say these things and that he’ll make cabinet appointments based on merit? Huckabee is making a strong play in Iowa for social cons, the same voters whom the left believes would be most susceptible to a little Muslim-baiting. Here’s Romney’s big demagogic opportunity — yet he’s spinning it the other way. It doesn’t square.

Update: If the answer to the last paragraph is that he’s confining these sentiments to small private events lest the press get wind of them — which kills the Mitt-as-demagogue meme, but so be it — then it’s an extraordinary lapse for the otherwise famously disciplined Romney machine. A politician with a prejudice has two options: either keep it to himself or, more cynically, go public with it and use it to wring votes from like-minded people. The dumbest course, especially in the post-“Macaca” YouTube age, is to cop to it but only in private.