Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney went on the offense today over secretly videotaped remarks he made earlier this year, continuing an effort to transform the campaign distraction into a broader debate about the role of government.
“The question in this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class,” he told hundreds of donors in Atlanta at a fundraiser, adding that both he and President Barack Obama share that feeling. “The question is who can help the middle class. I can, he can’t,” Romney said.
Two weeks before he faces Obama in the first of three debates, Romney and his team have embraced the videotaped comments surfacing this week that he made before Florida donors in May in which he dismissed almost half of Americans as government-dependent “victims” who will support Obama in the Nov. 6 election.
He wrote in an essay published today in USA Today that under Obama, “we have a stagnant economy that fosters government dependency. Instead of creating a web of dependency, I will pursue policies that grow our economy and lift Americans out of poverty.”
The 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 the disclosure that his campaign borrowed $20 million to cover campaign expenses while he was waiting to use his funds available once he officially became the Republican presidential nominee late last month.
The campaign has paid back $9 million of the loan and the $11 million remaining will be easily repaid, according to a Romney aide.
In a sign that members of his party foresee political fallout from Romney’s videotaped comments, some Republican lawmakers expressed disagreement with him over his videotaped remarks.
“My mom got public assistance for a short period of time, so I don’t think anybody is on public assistance because they want to be,” Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, who is running for re-election in a close race against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University professor, told reporters. “They want jobs.”
Pressed on whether he still supports Romney’s campaign, Brown said that while he didn’t agree with the Republican nominee on everything, “that’s what being an independent senator is about.”
Message ‘Getting Lost’
Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine called Romney’s taped comments “unfortunate” because “you always have to try to reach out to as many people as you possibly can.”
She said his message about jump-starting the economy “is getting lost.” Snowe announced earlier this year she wouldn’t seek another term this November.
Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, declined to endorse Romney’s characterization of 47 percent of Americans as feeling victimized. “The campaigns are sorting that issue out; I’ll let them do that,” he said.
And South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said Romney should leave fundraising to others such as his wife, Ann Romney, and spend more time in swing states.
“What Romney needs to do is get into Virginia and run for sheriff,” Graham said. “This is not rocket science.”
‘Out of Touch’
Obama’s Democratic allies were blunter in their criticisms of Romney over the videotape. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada opened the chamber’s proceedings this morning by saying, “This rare look at the real Mitt Romney proves one thing: that he is completely out of touch with average Americans.”
Obama, in an appearance yesterday on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman,” rejected the idea that Americans oppose government assistance. There’s “nothing wrong” with giving “a helping hand,” he said, adding that Americans don’t want a president who is “writing off a big chunk of the country.”
Romney defended his videotaped 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 yesterday 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.”
Romney continued this line of attack against Obama today. “He really believes in what I’ll call a government-centered society,” Romney said in Atlanta. “There are some who believe that if you simply take from some and give to others, then we’ll all be better off. It’s known as redistribution. It’s never been a characteristic of America.”
Obama, then an Illinois state senator, said in the taped remarks before a Loyola University conference in Chicago that “the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources” to help the working poor.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, questioned by reporters at his regular briefing today, declined to answer directly whether Obama believes in redistribution of wealth.
“It was all about his concern as a state senator with inefficient, ineffective” local government programs, Carney said, dismissing the Republican’s criticism as part of “desperate efforts” to change the subject.
A Sept. 12-16 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released yesterday showed Obama leading Romney, 50 percent to 45 percent, among likely voters. Romney aides pointed to the daily Gallup tracking poll that showed the race effectively tied yesterday after giving Obama an edge in the wake of the Democratic National Convention that ended Aug. 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Polling figures released today by Gallup showed that Americans have a more negative than positive reaction to Romney’s “47” percent comments, with 36 percent saying the remarks make them less likely to vote for him. Twenty percent said the remarks make them more likely to vote for him, and 43 percent said comments won’t make a difference.
Obama spent the day in Washington, meeting with Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the Oval Office.
After his morning fundraiser, Romney planned appearances in Miami, including a televised interview with the Spanish-language station Univision. The leaked video could hamper Romney’s efforts to cut into Obama’s lead with Hispanic voters.
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.
Latinos may account for 8.9 percent of the U.S. electorate in November, up from 7.4 percent in 2008, according to a report last month by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research institute.