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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's the story that continues to, well, dog Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Back in 1983, the Romney family took a 12-hour drive from Boston to Canada. Romney's five sons sat in the back of the station wagon and the family's Irish setter, Seamus, made the trip in a crate strapped to the roof. The outcry from dog owners has grown steadily since the story was first made public in 2007.

And as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, the nation's pet vote is not to be trifled with.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Handfuls of protesters with dog crates on top of their cars and stuffed dogs inside have been following candidate Romney around for weeks. Yesterday, however, followers of the website Dogs Against Romney took their canine campaign directly to the dogs, specifically the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at New York's Madison Square Garden.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

ROVNER: Cindy Constantino, for example, was carrying this sign...

CINDY CONSTANTINO: Mitt is mean.

ROVNER: And why, exactly does she think that?

CONSTANTINO: I think it's really mean to take your dog and strap him in his crate, and have him ride on the roof of his car to go on vacation. He should ride in the car with his family.

ROVNER: Now, the protest at Westminster was sponsored, in part, by Democratic leaning groups like MoveOn.org and Americans United for Change. But a couple of weeks ago, at the distinctly non-political Pet Expo at the Maryland State fairgrounds, a lot of pet owners were more than ready to sound off about Romney's travels with Seamus.

RAY DEMARIS: I'm Ray DeMaris and this is Ripley.

ROVNER: Ripley is a huge golden retriever sprawled across DeMaris' lap. They're from New Hampshire and traveled to the expo to compete in the dog agility competition. DeMaris says most dog people he knows are up in arms about the story.

DEMARIS: Yeah, I just can't think of anybody doing that, you know. And I heard the dog just, you know, defecated up there, was just so scared. I mean, how could you do that to a dog?

ROVNER: Now before we go any further, let's hear Romney's explanation. It came back in 2007, shortly after the Boston Globe recounted the incident, as part of a much longer series about the candidate's background. The interviewer is Fox News' Chris Wallace.

CHRIS WALLACE: I have a yellow lab named Winston. I would no sooner put him in a kennel on the roof of my car than I would one of my children. Question: What were you thinking?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MITT ROMNEY: This is a completely airtight kennel and mounted on the top of our car. He climbed up there regularly, enjoyed himself. He was in a kennel at home a great deal of the time as well. We love the dog. It was where he was comfortable. And we had five kids inside the car. And my guess is he liked it a lot better in his kennel than he would have liked it inside.

ROVNER: That didn't sit well with Scott Crider, a social media consultant from Gulf Shores, Alabama. Crider was doubly outraged at what Romney did after Seamus gave evidence of his distress.

SCOTT CRIDER: He, instead of, you know, taking the dog inside the car like should have in the first place, just hosed him down and got back on the highway and continued driving to Canada. And I just thought that was particularly cold.

ROVNER: So, back in 2007, Crider started a blog, called Dogs Against Romney and coined the catch phrases: Mitt is Mean and I Ride Inside. Millions of hits and thousands of Facebook fans later, Crider still insists he has no political dog in this fight.

CRIDER: I'm an independent and this is really about the animals.

ROVNER: Lest you think this all just funny or cute, consider this: Two-thirds of American households have pets. At $51 billion annually, the pet care industry is larger than the movie, recorded music, and video game industries combined.

And there are 20,000 different animal protection groups in the U.S., says Mike Markarian of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

MIKE MARKARIAN: And they collectively raise about $2 billion a year. It's an incredible expression of philanthropy from people who care about animals and want to see them protected from harm.

ROVNER: And many of them won't vote for someone who they perceive mistreated his dog, regardless of party. About the only good news for Romney and his dog story? Last year, President Obama only got a C-minus from the Humane Society for his work helping animals.

Julie Rovner, NPR News.

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