Congressional Republicans are worried Mitt Romney’s propensity for verbal gaffes will hurt him in the fall.
The former Massachusetts governor has had a series of foot-in-mouth moments that have set off alarm bells for the GOP and brought on gleeful attacks from Democrats.
The latest came the morning after his decisive win in Florida’s primary, when he told CNN he’s “not concerned about the very poor.”
“When you know that the media is against you to start with, which is the case with Romney and [Newt] Gingrich, you have to be extremely careful that you don’t give them a phrase that can go on a bumper sticker,” said one Republican congressman who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely.
Rep. Trent FranksTrent FranksLive coverage: House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill GOP lawmakers leave Trump White House with no deal Trump, GOP struggle to find healthcare votes MORE (R-Ariz.), who has endorsed Gingrich but said he liked Romney as well, said the former governor should be more careful about his choice of words going forward.
“Mr. Romney, unfortunately and through no fault of his own whatsoever, is almost the ideal caricature for the ‘divide America’ strategy of Barack ObamaBarack ObamaGraham: Left is 'going insane' after Trump's win President travels again for meetings at Trump golf club in Va. Cotton: House 'moved a bit too fast' on healthcare MORE. It’s going to be important for him to be aware of that,” Franks said. “Mr. Obama’s strategy is an insidious one, and unfortunately historically effective. My only admonition to Mr. Romney is to be aware of it and to be cautious [that] what he says doesn’t play into that.”
Romney’s campaign, which did not respond to a request to comment for this story, has argued its candidate’s words were taken out of context and, on the whole, people understood his meaning.
With his comments on the poor, Romney was arguing it’s the middle class that needs the most attention in the tough economy, but it was the phrasing that gave people pause: “I’m not concerned about the very poor that have the safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them,” he said.
That brought to mind another slip-up last month, when he said he “liked to be able to fire people.” He was speaking about how people should have the right to “fire” their health insurance company if they don’t like their coverage. But, again, he stumbled on the phrasing.
And whether voters got the full meaning of Romney’s remarks, they gave Democrats sound bites tailor-made for attack ads.
This past summer, he said “corporations are people” and joked to voters that “I’m also unemployed.”
Campaigning in New Hampshire before its primary, he said he knew what it was like to worry about getting a “pink slip.”
He stumbled in the GOP presidential debates too, offering a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and said of the landscaping company he used in Massachusetts having illegal immigrants as employees: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake — I can’t have illegals.”
A number of Republicans have defended Romney, saying his comments have been unfairly taken out of context.
“I don’t think it’s a concern. This is February and I’ve seen so much improvement in Mitt Romney in the year that he’s been campaigning,” said Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGOP senators pitch alternatives after House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill Friends, foes spar in fight on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Live coverage: Day three of Supreme Court nominee hearing MORE (R-Iowa), who has not endorsed in the GOP primary. “Just think of the difference between the speech he gave after he won Florida versus a lot of the other speeches he’s given. He realizes that you’ve got to put some emotion into it. You’ll never be elected president being a technocrat. … He’s going to become sharper the longer he campaigns.”
But most of Romney’s comments play into the Democrats’ portrayal of him as an out-of-touch millionaire, and they have pounded on every stumble.
Even President Obama seems to have gotten on board with the attacks, taking subliminal shots at Romney.
On Thursday, seeming to refer to Romney’s comment about not being concerned “about the very poor,” Obama emphasized his commitment to them.
“It’s ... about the biblical call to care for the least of these, for the poor, for those at the margins of our society,” he said at the National Prayer Breakfast. “To answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.’ ”
Romney’s GOP rivals for the nomination also have been on the attack.
“I really believe that we should care about the very poor, unlike Gov. Romney. But I believe we should care differently than Barack Obama,” Gingrich said Thursday in Nevada.