Republicans are worried that Mitt Romney is blowing a presidential race he should be winning, following publication of his comment that 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax and are dependent on the government.
Two GOP Senate candidates distanced themselves Tuesday from the remarks, revealed in a leaked video from a private fundraiser. And Republican strategists warned that the candidate’s words could fire up the Democratic base while alienating independent voters.
President Obama seized on the remarks to raise funds, while Romney sought to shift discussion to a 1998 video of Obama, then an Illinois state senator, discussing his support for the redistribution of wealth.
Romney again cast the comments about the 47 percent as being about campaign strategy, and said he was interested in winning votes from as many constituencies as possible.
“I was talking about the fact I don’t expect to get 60 [to] 70 percent of the vote,” Romney said. “I understand some portion will be the president’s. Some portion will be mine. I’ve got to get as many as I can from every single cohort in this country.”
In the video, taken from a May 17 fundraiser in Florida and posted on the liberal Mother Jones website, 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.”
While some conservatives praised Romney’s comments and welcomed a debate about growing dependency on government largesse, others criticized them and suggested his campaign was in danger of unraveling.
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, a frequent Romney critic, called the remarks “stupid and arrogant,” while Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon (R) repudiated them.
GOP strategists said the worst part of the episode was its timing.
Romney has suffered two difficult weeks since the beginning of the Democratic National Convention. Evidence is emerging of a solid Obama lead in several swing states.
Republicans believe Romney can still win — Gallup’s daily tracking poll Tuesday showed Obama with just a 1-point lead, suggesting the president’s convention bounce has faded.
But they worry that the video will cost Romney a crucial week of messaging two weeks before the first presidential debate, perhaps the most important moment left in the campaign.
“Time’s running out and it’s not just one bad day here or there, it’s been two bad weeks. We should be playing offense,” one strategist said. “It just seems like they ought to be doing better, like they ought to be winning, and every day the last few weeks is a bit worse than the one before it. People are worried and frustrated.”
The strategist said there was still time for Romney to turn things around, particularly with the debates and two more unemployment reports. But he doesn’t see any evidence that Romney is ready to capitalize on his remaining chances.
“They look like a losing campaign, and Romney to me looks like a losing candidate, and that’s the problem — it’s the perception. The reality is the polls are still pretty close, but they have the stench of a losing campaign,” he said. “There are cascading controversies and problems and they’re drowning out any positive message Romney wants to put out there and any ability for Romney to do a sustained attack on Obama.”
“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, describing Romney’s comments as a “sharp stick in the eye” to Obama’s base that could help the president with voter turnout.
One campaign strategist said Team Romney’s strategy to get past the issue would be to steer back to its original game plan for the week, which was meant to reset Romney’s campaign by offering more policy details and focusing on the economy.
“The thing that has the most impact from this is, on a week we were trying to get back on track, it keeps you from getting back to a nice operating rhythm,” said the strategist. “Would I have wished for this day? No.
“We’re going to move forward. We’re going to go back to more details, more policy, more Mitt,” the strategist said. “It’s as simple as getting back to the groove of the campaign and the regular back-and-forth.”
While Republicans fret, some close to Obama are quietly confident the race is moving in his direction.
“It used to be, before the convention, that you had to squint a bit to find the path for Mitt Romney to win this thing,” one former Obama White House official told The Hill. “Right now you have to squint really, really hard to find that pathway to victory. He definitely wins the Worst Week in Washington award, but this is particularly bad because it comes at one of the most crucial weeks in the campaign … just 49 days out.”
Obama campaign aides say it is likely that the remark will appear in an ad in the coming days but did not want to get into specifics on how and when they planned to use the video.
— Amie Parnes and Justin Sink contributed to this report.