Romney Tries To Dig Out From 'Poor' Comment

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney likely planned to spend Wednesday basking in the glow of his victory in Tuesday's Florida primary. Instead, he struggled to explain his comment that he's "not concerned about the very poor." The comment was made in an interview on CNN. Critics on the left and the right pounced.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Here's a view of the news media that's cynical - but all too often true.

MONTAGNE: Reporters, it's said, look for stories that confirm stereotypes about people. And if you're a very wealthy presidential candidate with an elite background and a reputation for a tin ear, reporters will listen extremely closely to your off-hand remarks about poor people.

INSKEEP: A statement Mitt Romney made on TV after winning the Florida primary caught the attention of Democrats, who say the Republican candidate is out of touch. Conservatives, too, worried out loud about Romney's tendency to create moments like this.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on what Romney said.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Wednesday was supposed to be a good day for Mitt Romney, with Florida serving as a triumphant launching pad to send him to contests in the West and hopefully, to the Republican presidential nomination. That's not how it went. Romney's first order of business yesterday morning was a victory lap - a round of TV interviews with the morning news shows. Things went sour on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

MITT ROMNEY: I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor.

SHAPIRO: You could practically hear the alarm bells going off in political war rooms across the country. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina tweeted: So much for, we're all in this together. Newt Gingrich told a crowd in Reno that he cares about all Americans. Romney says that snippet distorts the point he was trying to make. Here's his statement in its entirety.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

ROMNEY: I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. 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 America - the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now, are struggling. And I'll continue to take that message across the nation.

SHAPIRO: He tried to do damage control. On a noisy charter flight west, Romney told reporters: you've got to take the whole sentence.

ROMNEY: I've said throughout the campaign my focus, my concern, my energy is going to be devoted to helping middle-income people.

SHAPIRO: It's true that yesterday's interview was not the first time he's expressed this sentiment. Here's how he put it in Nashua the day before New Hampshire primary.

ROMNEY: My passion to help, if you will, the great majority of Americans - you know, I say that our very poor always need to have a safety net and occasionally, there are holes in the safety net that need to be repaired. And as I become aware of that, I'll fix those things. And the very rich in our society are doing fine.

SHAPIRO: That statement did not cause any controversy because he avoided saying: I'm not concerned about the very poor. The event in Nashua did get a lot of attention because of something else Romney said there.

ROMNEY: I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.

SHAPIRO: Out of context, that phrase - I like being able to fire people - took on a life of its own. Never mind that he was talking about insurance companies. The quote played right into the stereotype of Romney as a predatory capitalist, who made his fortune ruining people's lives. And that was not the first time Romney's word choice has gotten him in trouble. Last summer in Iowa, he said...

ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend.

SHAPIRO: And before that, he told people looking for work in Florida: I'm also unemployed.

Then there was his offer, in a debate, to bet Rick Perry $10,000; and a rally where Romney said he knew what it's like to worry about getting a pink slip. Some conservatives see a troubling pattern.

ERIC ERICKSON: He's not good in the soundbite game. But in modern American politics, you have to be good at the soundbite game.

SHAPIRO: Eric Erickson is the editor of the website RedState.com. He says politicians' gaffes have staying power if they play into a stereotype of that politician. And Romney is making it easier for Democrats to portray him as an out-of-touch elitist.

ERICKSON: He plays right into the caricature that we should all see coming. The president has already signaled he's going to run a campaign based on economic disparity, income disparity, us versus them.

SHAPIRO: Sure enough, liberals such as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow gleefully unwrapped their latest gift from the Romney campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW")

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:

Mitt Romney, zillionaire, not concerned about the very poor in this country. He does admit that it's not good being poor - in his words. But hey, he says that's what the safety net is for.

SHAPIRO: There's no indication that these gaffes will help any other Republican win the nomination. And that's what worries some conservatives. They fear that on the road to a fight with President Obama, their top warrior is stocking up the president's arsenal.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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