SALT LAKE CITY President Barack Obama declared Tuesday night the occupant of the Oval Office must work for everyone, not just for some, jabbing back at Mitt Romneys jarring statement that as a candidate, he doesnt worry about the 47 percent of the country that pays no income taxes.
Romney neither disavowed nor apologized for his remarks, which included an observation that nearly half of the country believe they are victims and entitled to a range of government support. Instead, Romney cast his comment as evidence of a fundamental difference with Obama about the economy, adding the federal government should not take from some to give to the others.
As the rivals sparred with seven weeks remaining in a close race for the White House, two GOP Senate candidates publicly disavowed Romneys remarks, caught on videotape at a fundraiser. Republican officials openly debated the impact that a series of controversies would have on the partys prospects of winning the presidency.
Romneys running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, said the Republican presidential nominee was obviously inarticulate in trying to make his point. The Wisconsin congressman told KRNV-TV in Reno, Nev., The point were trying to make here is, under the Obama economy, government dependency is up and economic stagnation is up.
Top Republicans in Congress declined through aides to offer their reaction to Romneys remarks just as they generally refrained from commenting a week ago when he issued a statement that inaccurately accused the Obama administration of giving comfort to demonstrators after they breached the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
The most recent controversy in a campaign filled with them was ignited by the emergence of a videotape, made last May, in which Romney told donors at a fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes. They believe the government has a responsibility to care for them ... believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That thats an entitlement.
He said, Ill never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
In a next-day interview on Fox, the network of choice for conservatives, Romney said he didnt intend to write off any part of a deeply divided electorate, including seniors who are among those who often pay no taxes. Instead, he repeatedly sought to reframe his remarks as a philosophical difference of opinion between himself and Obama.
Im not going to get votes from Americans who believe governments job is to redistribute wealth, he said, adding that was something Obama believes in.
He also said he wants to be president so he can help hard-pressed Americans find work and earn enough so they become income taxpayers.
Romney didnt say so, but the U.S. income tax is designed to be progressive, so those who earn the most theoretically pay the most. Through programs as diverse as Social Security, Medicare, health care and food stamps, the government collects tax revenue and pays it out in the form of benefits for those who qualify.
Obama responded during an appearance on the David Letterman show.
One thing Ive learned as president is that you represent the entire country, he said. As for Romneys statement about the 47 percent, he said, There are not a lot of people out there who think they are victims or simply entitled.
At the same time, his campaign released a new ad saying that if Romney wins the White House, he might seek the elimination of a series of tax breaks used by millions of middle class Americans. Mitt Romney, hes so focused on big business and tax cuts for the wealthy, it seems like his answers to middle class America are just tough luck, says a woman in the commercial.
For his part, Romney referred to videotaped comments Obama made in 1998 as evidence he favored government redistribution of wealth. As an Illinois state senator at the time, Obama said he believes in it at least to a certain level to make sure everybodys got a shot.
Privately, some Republicans were harshly critical of Romneys most recent comments and his overall campaign to date, saying he had frittered away opportunities. They also said that with early voting already under way in some states, the time to recover was smaller than might appear.
Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate for a Senate seat in Connecticut, was open with her criticism. I disagree with Governor Romneys insinuation that 47% of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care, she said in a statement posted to her website.
Sen. Scott Brown, in a tough race for re-election in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, said of Romneys comments: Thats not the way I view the world.
Still, with high-profile presidential debates and seven weeks of campaigning yet ahead, others said those concerns were overstated.
I dont expect the negative headlines of this week will be what were talking about a week from now, said Fergus Cullen, the former Republican state chairman in New Hampshire and a close ally of Romney. Like other Republicans, he said, Its incumbent on the Romney campaign to make it (the election) about Obamas handling of the economy.
In recent days, Republicans have grumbled that Romney needed to sharpen his appeal to struggling middle class Americans by stating more clearly what he would do as president to help them. That effort began overnight with a new ad designed to appeal to female voters.
The new controversy blazed as opinion polls suggested that a narrow lead Obama gained nationally and in some key battleground states in the wake of the Democratic National Convention might be ebbing.
The sluggish economy and lingering high unemployment are by far the overriding issues of the election, and Romneys case for the presidency is based on his claim that his success as a businessman has left him the skills needed to create jobs in a nation where unemployment is 8.1 percent.
Obama and the Democrats have tried to counter by depicting the presidents challenger as a multimillionaire who has some of his wealth invested in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere overseas, and is out of touch with the needs of middle class Americans.
In his original reaction to the video, posted by the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones, Romney told reporters Monday night that his fundraising remarks were not elegantly stated. But he offered no apologies and did not answer directly when asked if he felt he had offended anyone.
He also called for the release of the entire video, rather than selected clips, and Mother Jones did so Tuesday afternoon.
By then, the magazine already had posted another excerpt in which Romney offered an unvarnished assessment of the chances for peace in the Middle East. The Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish, he said.
You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem, he said, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.
On another topic, he also noted that his father was born in Mexico and suggested humorously that Id have a better shot at winning this if George Romney had been born to Mexican parents. But he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico. ... And I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino.
Kuhnhenn reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Holly Ramer in Dover, N.H., Matthew Daly in New York, Sandra Chereb in Carson City, Nev., and David Espo, Charles Babington, Julie Pace, Philip Elliott and Kasie Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.