COSTA MESA, Calif. — With just seven weeks left in the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney’s efforts to recast his campaign in response to critics and a drop in polls have been derailed by new criticism of a leaked video that shows him dismissing President Obama’s supporters as people who take no responsibility for their livelihoods and who think they are entitled to government handouts.
In the video, published by Mother Jones magazine, the Republican presidential nominee tells a private audience of campaign donors that Obama backers will vote for the president “no matter what.” Romney said that they account for “47 percent” of voters and he does not “worry about those people.”
Romney also told the donors that the pursuit of Middle East peace is likely to remain “an unsolved problem” because the Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever” in reaching a peace agreement with Israel. The pessimistic comments put him at odds with the Republican Party platform, which expresses support for “two democratic states — Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine — living in peace and security.”
Several prominent Republicans worried on Tuesday that the video had put the Romney campaign into crisis mode once again after a series of setbacks in the last week.
“This is dangerous – not because he’s going to lose that 47 percent of the vote – but because you’re going to start seeing suburban voters, swing voters, storm away from the campaign as quickly as possible unless he fixes it,” said Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, whose MSNBC program “Morning Joe” is a favorite of Beltway insiders. He said Romney was reeling from “one of the worst weeks for any presidential candidate in a general election that any of us can remember.”
New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks compared Romney to Thurston Howell III, the wealthy character from the television show “Gilligan’s Island” who embodied for many television viewers the behavior of elitist New Englanders.
They pointed to the decision not to aggressively combat the slew of television ads that the Obama campaign aired over the summer characterizing Romney as a ruthless technocrat who shipped jobs overseas during his time at Bain Capital and who has mysterious foreign investments. They also said the candidate’s overseas trip in July, which some top advisers urged him not to take, turned into such a mess that it jeopardized his credentials.
Furthermore, supporters said the Republican National Convention was a missed opportunity because Romney did not lay out a clear policy-driven vision and because the lauded biographical video was scrapped from prime time in favor of Clint Eastwood’s performance, which featured an empty chair.
Democrats have pounced on the video, launching a new ad campaign that plays off the “47 percent’’ remarks. At a press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “Setting aside what Gov. Romney thinks, the president certainly does not think men and women on social security are irresponsible or victims, that students aren’t responsible or victims.... The broader point you hear him make is the need to come together as a country and work for what’s best for the country, especially the middle class, which is the backbone of this nation.”
Romney hastily called a news conference here Monday night to try to diffuse the controversy. He acknowledged having made the remarks and stood by them, although he conceded that they were “not elegantly stated” and that he had been “speaking off the cuff in response to a question.” Romney called for the release of the full video, and Mother Jones said they would do so later Tuesday afternoon.
At a rally for GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan on Tuesday morning, some supporters said that Romney’s remarks where right on.
“The 47 percent -- they’re not paying any taxes, so they don’t have any incentive to support him,” Jim Pacocha, a 70-year-old retiree from southern New Hampshire, said when asked about the remarks Romney made at a fundraiser in May.
“Once it gets past the tipping point, we’re going to be as bad as any European, socialist country,” he added.
Romney said his comments underscored the contrast between the two candidates’ divergent visions for the nation.
“This is ultimately a question about direction for the country: Do you believe in a government-centered society that provides more and more benefits or do you believe instead in a free-enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams?” he told reporters. He added that his is a “free-people, free-enterprise, free-market, consumer-driven approach.”
In the video, Romney is seen speaking at a May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., at the home of Marc Leder, a private equity manager, according to the Mother Jones article.
“There are 47 percent who are with him,” Romney said of Obama, “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. These are people who pay no income tax.”
He said 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.”
His remarks could undermine recent attempts by his campaign to present him as a caring and charitable leader in his church and community.
Romney, trying to provide some context for the comments he made in the video, told reporters Monday night that he was talking to donors about campaign strategy, not his vision for the country.
“It’s not elegantly stated. . . . I’m speaking off the cuff in response to a question,” he said. Romney said that “people who are parting with their monies are very interested in knowing can you win or not and that’s what this was addressing.”
“Of course individuals are going to take responsibility for their lives,” he said. “My campaign is about helping people take more responsibility and becoming employed again, particularly those who don’t have work. This whole campaign is based on getting people jobs again, putting people back to work,” he said.
In the video, Romney said that he does not vilify the president because his own campaign’s discussions with focus groups of independent voters who supported Obama in 2008 suggest that tough talk does not work.
“When you say to them, ‘Do you think Barack Obama is a failure?’ they overwhelmingly say, ‘No,’ ” Romney said. “They love the phrase that he’s ‘over his head.’ . . . We spend our days with people who agree with us. And these people are people who voted for him and don’t agree with us.”
Candidates tend to talk more freely at closed-door fundraisers than they do publicly, and when those remarks leak out, they can create controversy. In 2008, Obama told supporters at a San Francisco fundraiser that small-town Pennsylvania voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion” — a quote that was used against him Monday by Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, during a campaign event in Des Moines.
The mention of Obama’s 2008 remarks — and Ryan’s “This Catholic deer hunter is guilty as charged” rejoinder — has been a staple of the GOP vice-presidential nominee’s stump speech.
In the video, Romney also noted his deficit in the polls among Hispanic voters and joked about his family background. His father, George, was born in Mexico while his American grandparents lived there. “Had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot of winning this.”
He added: “I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino.”
The video, released in bits and pieces, appears to have been captured by a hidden camera during a question-and-answer session that was closed to reporters.Ten separate portions of the video, including Romney’s remarks about Obama supporters, were first posted on YouTube on Aug. 27 by a user identified as “Anne Onymous,” who is listed as having joined the video service that day. The user’s account includes a picture of a young woman, and lists their location as “China.”
Dan Eggen, Ed O’Keefe and Rachel Weiner in Washington and Felicia Sonmez in Des Moines contributed to this report.