— For weeks, Mitt Romney stood by his now-infamous remarks about “the 47 percent.” Sure, he said, his criticism of nearly half of Americans who don’t pay income taxes was “not elegantly stated,” but he refused to disavow it.

Until this week. In the face of polling showing his comments — relentlessly replayed in Obama campaign advertisements — had taken a toll on his campaign, particularly in battleground Ohio, Romney changed course.

The Republican nominee decided to distance himself from the comments, surreptitiously recorded on a video leaked last month, and had prepared a strong statement to deliver in Wednesday’s debate. The subject never came up during the debate, but Romney got his chance to address his controversial comments in a television interview Thursday night.

“Clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right. In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong,” Romney told conservative commentator Sean Hannity on Fox News.

Romney added: “My life has shown that I care about 100 percent, and that’s been demonstrated throughout my life. And this whole campaign is about the 100 percent.”

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During a fundraiser in May at a supporter’s home in Boca Raton, Fla., Romney told wealthy donors that 47 percent of Americans are government freeloaders who see themselves as “victims,” who can’t be persuaded to take personal responsibility for their lives and who will support President Obama in the election “no matter what.”

“My job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” Romney said.

On Friday, Romney’s aides dismissed any notion that he made a mea culpa in the interview with Hannity. They insisted that Romney expressed the same sentiment — that what he said came out wrong — that he voiced immediately after the leaked video surfaced Sept. 17.

The Obama campaign pilloried Romney for the apparent about-face, releasing a video Friday titled, “Mitt Romney’s Disdain for the Middle Class: He Said It, He Meant It.”

Privately, Romney’s advisers acknowledged that the comments were causing serious damage to his efforts to win over independent voters.

The former Massachusetts governor initially said he had been speaking as a political pundit, analyzing the electorate and merely explaining that nearly half of the country’s voters were a solid lock for Obama. Still, the remarks pierced the national consciousness in a way that few blunders do and became a defining element of Romney’s candidacy.

And they spawned several weeks of hand-wringing within the GOP, especially among the conservative commentariat, who speculated that the remarks may have been fatal to Romney’s candidacy.

The 47 percent comments have had a shelf life in part because of the Obama campaign’s ads. One spot, showing images of factory workers, veterans and families against audio of Romney making the comments, has a significant footprint in nearly every local television market across each battleground state.

Romney and his advisers knew the comment had to be dealt with, one adviser said, and they wanted to correct it before the biggest audience possible: the first presidential debate.

Part of Romney’s calculation, advisers said, was to try to turn the page by saying that his comments were “wrong.” Now, whenever he is asked about “the 47 percent,” Romney can say something like, “Yes, I was wrong, but let’s get back to the big issues of the campaign.”

As one adviser said, “What he did helps cauterize the wound.”