Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is seeking to pivot from campaign distractions that threaten to undermine his message during what was supposed to be the confidence-building phase of his bid.
With only seven weeks before the election and just two before he faces President Barack Obama for the first of three debates, Romney spent Tuesday working to contain the political damage from the publication of secretly videotaped remarks to donors in which he dismissed 47 percent of Americans as government-dependent "victims."
Democrats and Obama's campaign expressed outrage, and some Republican candidates distanced themselves from remarks that party strategists said risked alienating the very voters -- non-college educated whites, Latinos, senior citizens and veterans among them -- who Romney, 65, needs to defeat the president.
"It plays into some tried-and-true themes the Obama campaign has been working hard to tag Romney with," said Republican strategist Terry Holt, a former aide to President George W. Bush. "The real challenge is how you overcome a mistake that lets the Obama people get back on message against you."
Romney is running out of time, Holt said, to present himself as a "credible alternative" to Obama, "and in the last few weeks, there have been a lot of distractions -- it's just been a difficult time for the challenger to keep his message under control."
Obama took advantage of Romney's troubles.
There are "not a lot of people out there who think they are victims," the president said in an interview on CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman."
There's "nothing wrong" with giving Americans "a helping hand," he said, adding that Americans don't want a president who is "writing off a big chunk of the country." Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada opened the Senate Wednesday morning by chastising Romney for his remarks, saying, "This rare look at the real Mitt Romney proves one thing: that he is completely out of touch with average Americans."
The latest flap comes at a critical moment for Romney, who has been buffeted by news reports about turmoil within his campaign, bipartisan criticism of his comments after the death of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, and new polls showing him trailing Obama nationally and in swing states.
A Sept. 12-16 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released Tuesday showed Obama leading Romney, 50 percent to 45 percent, among likely voters. A Washington Post poll released Tuesday gave Obama an eight-percentage-point lead in Virginia, a battleground state.
Romney defended his comments in an interview yesterday on Fox News. He said he didn't mean to write off any group of voters, and sought to place his statement in the broader context of his campaign message.
"We believe in free people and free enterprise; not redistribution," Romney said. He twice mentioned a video publicized by the Drudge Report Tuesday in which Obama is heard in a 1998 talk advocating government actions that facilitate "redistribution -- because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure everybody's got a shot." It was Romney's second attempt to regain control of his campaign's message after the publication by the magazine Mother Jones of videotape from a May fundraiser.
In the tape, Romney says of Obama: "Alright, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing."
He goes on to say that those people don't pay income taxes and will never back his candidacy, adding, "My job is not to worry about those people -- I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives" -- but to focus on "the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents."
Romney said in the Fox interview that he was giving his analysis of an electorate deeply divided between him and Obama. "We were, of course, talking about a campaign, and about how he's going to get half the vote and I'm going to get half the vote," Romney said. "We go after every group we can to get votes."
Romney's running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said Romney was "obviously inarticulate" in his remarks to the donors. "The point we're trying to make is, under the Obama economy, government dependency is up and economic stagnation is up," he said in an interview with KRNV-TV in Reno, Nevada.
Republican strategists outside the campaign, many of whom said Romney was right to try to capitalize on widespread antipathy for the growth of government, said his comments could make it difficult for him to connect with undecided voters.
"The idea that people are against government handouts and then more than willing to take government handouts is a fairly consistent pattern in American politics," said Republican strategist John Feehery. "The bigger danger to Romney is this sense that he's just out of touch, and doesn't understand the concerns of people who sometimes need help from the government."
Some anti-government spending advocates cheered Romney's remarks, saying they are sparking a debate over the role of government that they had wanted to see in the presidential campaign.
"Romney's comments give him an opportunity to define this election as one between his vision of opportunity and freedom versus a bureaucratic, government-run entitlement society brought to you by Barack Obama," said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist.
Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Romney, said the leaked remarks hadn't become a distraction. "We're still focused" on the economy, he told reporters on board Romney's campaign plane.
In the full videotape released Tuesday, Romney also said he must appeal to a sense of disappointment among some of Obama's 2008 backers to build a winning coalition.
"Because they voted for him, they don't want to be told that they were wrong, that he's a bad guy, that he did bad things, that he's corrupt," Romney tells the donors. "Those people that we have to get, they want to believe that they did the right thing, but he just wasn't up to the task. They love the phrase that he's 'over his head.'"
Romney's now-public comments may make that pitch harder to sell based on voter interviews conducted by Bloomberg in swing states.
"He implied that people on food stamps, or who are seeking housing, are lazy and undeserving, when almost everyone worked to put in to the system," said Regan Byrd, 25, who lives in Aurora, a Denver, Colorado suburb. "I've paid taxes and there were times I had to use food stamps" while searching for a job after graduating from college, she said, adding she's now more resolved to vote for Obama.
In a sign that members of his party fear political fallout, some Republican congressional candidates expressed disagreement with Romney's position.
Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, who is running for re-election in a close race against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University professor, told the Hill newspaper: "That's not the way I view the world. As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in."
The leaked video could hinder Romney's attempt to deepen ties with Hispanic voters, just 29 percent of whom back him, according to a recent Latino Decisions and impreMedia poll that showed Obama drawing support from 66 percent. On the tape, Romney, whose father was born in Mexico, jokes that he'd "have a better shot at winning this" if his grandparents hadn't been American. "I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino," he said.
It also may irk some potential supporters among the almost half of American voters who don't pay income taxes. Most of those are senior citizens and low-wage workers.
While Romney said he was talking about people who don't pay income taxes, his comments about Americans who feel "entitled" to government help prompted some Republicans to say that they might alienate veterans as well.
Veteran Benefits Richard Armitage, former deputy Secretary of State under Republican President George W. Bush and a former Defense Department official, said the remarks showed "that Mr. Romney doesn't know what this country looks like, and he has no idea how government works."
"The veterans who serve 20 years or more in the service, they get benefits -- that's government money," as is the case for wounded combatants and GIs paying for their education, he said in a telephone interview.
During the Fox interview, Romney said he hadn't meant to refer to seniors and military servicemen.
"There are a number of retirees, members of the military and so forth, who aren't paying taxes, and that's as it should be," Romney said.
Charlie Black, a Republican strategist who advises Romney, said the tape is only a temporary setback for the campaign.
"It's a distraction you'd rather not have, but listen, all these candidates make mistakes," Black said.