By Kevin Robillard
Campaign watchers thought the next crucial date in the 2012 contest that could alter the course of the race was going to be the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Oct. 3. But it looks like a fateful moment may have come sooner than expected.
The Romney campaign was reeling Tuesday after videos posted by Mother Jones, a liberal magazine, show the GOP nominee telling high-dollar donors at a May fundraiser that he can't count on the support of "47 percent" of the country who are in thrall to government aid and don't pay federal income taxes. The $50,000-a-person event was held at the Boca Raton, Fla., home of investment banker Marc Leder.
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," Romney said in the video footage. "All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, 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. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.
"And they will vote for this president no matter what. And the president starts off with 48, 49 … he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of people pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. He'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich, that's what they sell every four years."
Romney added that his "job is to not worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center, who are independent, who are thoughtful, who look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not."
The Obama campaign quickly pounced on the comments Monday night, with campaign manager Jim Messina declaring it "shocking."
"It's shocking that a candidate for president of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people view themselves as ‘victims,' entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take ‘personal responsibility' for their lives," Messina said in a statement. "It's hard to serve as president for all Americans when you've disdainfully written off half the nation."
The campaign sent out a fundraising email pegged to Romney's remarks.
Romney has so far stood by the "47 percent" speech, with his campaign initially releasing a statement saying the former Massachusetts governor "wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy." In a last-minute press conference in Costa Mesa, Calif., Monday night, Romney admitted his remarks were not "elegantly stated."
"I am sure I can state it more clearly and effectively than I did in a setting like that," Romney told reporters before heading to a fundraiser.
"I am talking about a political process of drawing people in my campaign," he said, adding: "My campaign is about helping people take more responsibility."
In invoking the nearly half of all Americans who don't pay income taxes, Romney is using a common GOP talking point. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for one, employed it during the Republican presidential primaries. And the remark has some truth.
According to the independent Tax Policy Center, 46 percent of Americans paid no federal income tax in 2011. Most of those, however, did pay payroll and federal excise taxes, as well as state and local taxes. Of the 46 percent, half earned too little to pay anything, and another half had no taxable income after deductions and credits. Three-quarters of the latter half relied on credits designed to help either the elderly, the working poor or children.
Mother Jones reporter David Corn got the video after James Carter IV, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic opposition researcher, put him in touch with an anonymous source. Mother Jones plans to release the full video Tuesday afternoon, co-editor Clara Jeffrey told POLITICO.
The video surfaced as the Romney campaign had already been struggling in the past week. On Sunday, POLITICO reported staffers were blaming chief strategist Stuart Stevens for Romney's problems and lag in the polls behind President Barack Obama, and a Pew poll released Monday found 48 percent of Americans who were following the situation in the Middle East disapproved of Romney's handling of the situation.
While Romney surrogate Donald Trump said the GOP standard-bearer shouldn't apologize for his "47 percent" comments, many moderate conservative pundits were gloomy.
MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former GOP congressman, felt the need to wear a bag over his head during "Morning Joe" to hide his support for Romney. A Bloomberg View blogger said the tape "has killed Mitt Romney's campaign." The New York Times's David Brooks wrote Romney was "running a depressingly inept presidential campaign."
Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol labeled Romney's comments "arrogant and stupid."
"It's worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don't pay income taxes are Romney supporters — especially of course seniors (who might well ‘believe they are entitled to heath care,' a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they're not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan," Kristol wrote. "So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him."
Kristol, who made repeated efforts to woo another candidate into the Republican primary, also jokingly suggested Romney might choose "to step down [so] we get the Ryan-Rubio ticket we deserve!"
While Republicans were mourning their candidate's misstep, Democrats celebrated an apparently unique look into Romney's true worldview, with Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki telling CNN: "Mitt Romney wrote off nearly 50 percent of the country before he is even sworn into office. This is something that is shocking and really alarming to people."
"What the governor said is very significant, because it reveals something about his value system," former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said on CNN's "Starting Point." "For him to speak with such disdain about so many Americans, and he wants to be our president?"
Strickland said Romney "spoke from the heart, and that troubles me."
"The video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined," New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait wrote. "Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party."
Liberal New York Times columnist Nick Kristof sparked the Twitter hashtag #RomneyEncore, speculating on what the Republican would do next.
Some members of the conservative blogosphere, however, called on Romney to fully embrace the clip's message. National Review's Jonathan O'Sullivan suggests the candidate should respond to the video by presenting a choice between "an America on welfare or an America at work."
"The point is that such a response would mean that Romney was taking charge of the debate and focusing it on the very issues that he needs and doubtless wants to emphasize," O'Sullivan writes. "This is an opportunity for him to show his mettle — and to demonstrate to the eager critics that no one is finished until he thinks he is."
Republican strategist Mary Matalin dismissed the controversy as media-generated in an e-mail to POLITICO.
"He wouldn't say this, but I will: it is a metaphor for the difference between a community organizer and an entrepreneur. It is also an excuse/opportunity for the MSM to wittingly or otherwise reinforce the Obama destruction/distraction strategy, but they will once again be surprised how little their countrymen will agree with them on this issue or their perspective," Matalin wrote.
While much of the focus so far has been on Romney's remarks about the "47 percent," the Republican nominee was more blunt about several of his other positions and the state of the race. Discussing his outreach to Hispanic voters, Romney said he would have a "better shot of winning this" if his father had been born to Mexican parents.
And Romney declared the Palestinians are an unassailable roadblock to peace.
"I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there's just no way," Romney said.