In an interview with CNN Wednesday morning that should have been a Florida victory lap, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney made a fumble that could give rivals an attack ad sound bite.

Asked about his economic plan, Romney said repeatedly that he was not concerned with very poor Americans, but was focused instead on helping the middle class.

Romney explained that he was confident that food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid and other assistance would keep the poor afloat — he pledged to fix holes in that safety net “if it needs repair.” He repeated past statements that his main focus is the middle class because those people, in his opinion, have been hardest hit by the recession (President Obama also has focused many of his efforts on the middle class).

But Romney’s awkward phrasing could give fuel to critics who argue that he does not empathize with the poorest Americans.

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there,” Romney told CNN. “If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

Host Soledad O’Brien pointed out that the very poor are probably struggling too.

“The challenge right now — we will hear from the Democrat party the plight of the poor,” Romney responded, after repeating that he would fix any holes in the safety net. “And there’s no question it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor . . . My focus is on middle-income Americans. . . we have a very ample safety net, and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor.”

Romney has proposed some changes to the safety net, including block-granting Medicaid to the states and capping its growth at 1 to 2 percent a year.

(Poll: How do you see Romney’s statement?)

Just two weeks ago, Romney appeared to have shifted on the social safety net, saying in South Carolina, “I’m concerned about the poor in this country.” But on Wednesday, he took a different tack.

In any political campaign, he said, “you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich — that’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor — that’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.”

Romney’s difficulty connecting to Americans’ economic troubles — combined with his own extraordinary wealthwill be a major focus of the Obama campaign, if Romney is the Republican nominee.

Update: “President Obama has destroyed the middle class,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul responded in a statement. “We look forward debating President Obama on how his policies have failed the middle class.” Romney himself argued on the campaign trail that he was taken out of context.

Sen. Jim DeMint said Wednesday afternoon that Romney needed to address his remarks and “backtrack.”

“I know he does care about the poor,” DeMint told Roll Call. “But, in fact, I would say I’m worried about the poor because many are trapped in dependency, they need a good job; they don’t need to be on social welfare programs.”


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