Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney, seeking to contain the political damage from the release of secretly recorded remarks to donors in which he dismissed 47 percent of Americans as government-dependent “victims,” said those comments reflect “a message I am carrying day in and day out” in his campaign.
The Republican presidential nominee appeared on Fox News today to defend the remarks, saying that he hadn’t written off any group of voters and had merely been offering his analysis of an electorate closely divided between him and President Barack 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,” said Romney, who made no mention of the subject during a fundraising luncheon in Salt Lake City, Utah today. “We go after every group we can to get votes.”
Obama, during an interview scheduled for broadcast tonight on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman,” disputed Romney’s assertions.
There are “not a lot of people out there who think they are victims,” the president said in New York. There’s “nothing wrong” with giving Americans “a helping hand,” he said. Americans don’t want a president who is “writing off a big chunk of the country,” he said.
It was Romney’s second attempt in as many days to regain control of his campaign’s message after the publication by Mother Jones magazine of a leaked videotape, which some Republican strategists said could be a damaging distraction that would undermine the ability of the former Massachusetts governor to appeal to key voting blocs. At a brief news conference last night in Costa Mesa, California, Romney said his comments weren’t “elegantly stated.”
In a sign that members of his party fear the political fallout, Linda McMahon, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, put out a statement distancing herself from Romney’s stated position.
“I disagree with Governor Romney’s insinuation that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care,” McMahon said in the statement. “I know that the vast majority of those who rely on government are not in that situation because they want to be. People today are struggling because the government has failed to keep America competitive, failed to support job creators, and failed to get our economy back on track.”
Republican strategists, many of whom said Romney was right to try to capitalize on widespread antipathy for the growth of government, nonetheless said his comments could make it more difficult for him to connect with voters who have yet to settle on a presidential candidate.
“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.”
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist and presidential campaign veteran, said Romney would lose the race if he couldn’t seize control of the campaign debate and transform it into a competition of economic policy ideas.
“If this stays as a personality contest, I think that Mr. Romney is going to be unsuccessful,” Holtz-Eakin, who advised the 2008 presidential bid of Senator John McCain of Arizona, told Bloomberg Television today. “Mr. Romney is going to be successful if he really pushes the policy front and talks about the need, for example, tax reform that promotes greater economic growth that brings the 23 million who want to work and can’t find a job back into the labor force.”
For Romney, he added, “this distraction keeps him away from talking about that.”
In video excerpts from a May fundraiser published by Mother Jones yesterday, Romney, 65, 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 -- you name it.”
Not My Job
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 five to 10 percent in the center that are independents.”
The magazine released the entire tape today, in which Romney also says he must appeal to the sense of disappointment among some of Obama’s 2008 backers.
“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 says in the tape. “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.’ ”
While Romney said he was talking about people who don’t pay taxes, his comments about Americans who feel “entitled” to government aid prompted some Republicans to worry that they might alienate voters.
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. Those who are wounded on the battlefield, they receive government benefits. GI’s who go to school -- they all get benefits. The way he said it, since it was so poorly phrased, those are part of the 47%,” Armitage 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 while the tape is a setback for the campaign, it’s temporary. “It’s a distraction you’d rather not have, but listen, all these candidates make mistakes,” Black said. Romney was “smart” to immediately hold a news conference explaining he was “giving political analysis” -- not making a value judgment about voters, he added.
“Every news day is valuable -- you’d rather have your message out there and have that be the main thing in the news -- but nobody’s perfect at that, and this isn’t as crucial as it’s going to be in October,” Black said.
Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Romney, said the leaked remarks hadn’t become a distraction to the campaign.
“We’re still focused,” he told reporters on board Romney’s campaign plane today. “I still think this is an election that’s focused on the economy, it’s focused on the direction of the country, and I think the voters right now who have yet to make up their mind are still viewing it through the lens of that.”
That didn’t stop Democrats from seeking advantage from the tape. Obama’s campaign released a video in which voters listen to or watch the Republican’s comments and respond with incredulity and outrage.
One woman says it makes her “sick to my stomach,” while another viewer says it “shows that he’s out of touch.”
Some anti-government spending advocates cheered Romney’s remarks, saying they are sparking the very debate over the role of government they had been hoping to see in the presidential campaign.
“Romney’s comments have opened up a much needed discussion about what kind of country America is going to be,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist. “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; I will take that fight every day.”
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