Mitt Romney's comments at a private fundraiser are alarming a number of Republican strategists, some of whom are worried that the fallout could deal a body blow to the GOP nominee's already struggling campaign.
“It's a kidney shot because it reveals a very cynical view,” Mark McKinnon, who served as a top strategist to former President George W. Bush, told The Hill. “He's pushing independent voters out the door.”
McKinnon said the remarks were also a “sharp stick in the eye” to President Obama's base and would likely fire them up to turn out in bigger numbers this fall.
In his comments, which were caught on video tape and posted online Monday, Romney said that 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes are “dependent on the government" and "believe they are victims.”
He added that his “job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Democrats seized on the remarks to fundraise for Obama and to denounce Romney as out of touch with the nation.
“When you're president of the United States, you're president of all the people, not just the people who voted for you,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
One Republican candidate in the Senate, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, sought to distance herself from the remarks while other GOP pundits criticized the campaign.
Romney had no public events scheduled on Tuesday but is expected to appear on the Fox News Network this evening. Running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) didn’t directly address the comments in a campaign event.
On Monday night, he said his remarks were phrased inelegantly but stuck by their content, saying they reflected “the same message I give people in public.”
Romney said he had been speaking “off the cuff” and was talking about campaign strategy, “not his vision for the country.”
Several GOP political strategists were as harsh in their criticism of Romney as McKinnon, though they asked that their names be withheld to speak candidly about their party's nominee.
These strategists said the video reinforced perceptions that Romney was an uncaring, out-of-touch millionaire. They also worried the fallout would cost him a crucial week of messaging as he struggles to close a narrow gap in the polls with Obama.
"Couldn't come at a worse time," one Republican strategist told The Hill Monday night. "I hope the [Romney campaign communications] team in Boston doesn't have any sharp objects nearby."
The strategist and others argued the remarks were accurate, but said they were phrased in the worst possible way — and have come out at a particularly bad time, as Romney's campaign has struggled to change the narrative that it's slipping behind Obama.
"I don't think we'll know the full extent of the damage for another 48 hours," another GOP strategist told The Hill Monday night. "If it makes it to the weekend, it could take a game-changer to get him back on track."
New York Times columnist David Brooks in a harsh critique of Romney said his comments suggest “he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?” He added: “It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.”
The comments were made at a closed-door fundraiser at the Boca Raton, Fla., home of private-equity banker Marc Leder earlier this summer. Mother Jones posted snippets of video of the remarks on Monday, from an unidentified source.
Romney’s argument closely mirrors those made by a number of conservatives that because nearly half of Americans don't pay federal income taxes they are dependent on government. Both Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) made similar remarks during the GOP primaries.
Romney himself said during the primaries that he wanted to “make sure people do pay their fair share” after pointing out that “half the people in this country pay no income tax at all.” But he did not go as far as his GOP rivals in his rhetoric.
Some conservatives on Tuesday called on Romney to go all-in on the issue, saying it represented an opportunity to have a critical debate about the country. At National Review, columnist John O’Sullivan immediately urged Romney to own up to the remarks and embrace their core argument.
Ford O'Connell, another Republican strategist, said the remarks were not an "election killer" and argued there's “some truth” to them.
But he also pointed to their possible danger in a tight election. Gallup’s daily tracking poll on Tuesday showed Obama with only a one-percentage point lead.
O’Connell said that the remarks were not Romney’s finest hour and will cost Romney a week that he can't afford to lose at this point in the election.
“What makes it really sting is that it will likely dominate the news coverage for the next couple of days at a time when Team Romney desperately needs to change the narrative with only seven weeks to go in the election,” he said.
This story was posted at 10:11 a.m. and updated at 2:27 p.m.