Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney isn't backing down from a hidden-camera video that shows him disparaging nearly half the nation's voters. But it was clear on Tuesday that he has a lot more explaining to do if he wants to win over the broad swath of voters whose support he will need to oust Democrat Barack Obama from the White House in the November 6 election.
While Obama's Democrats have focused on the growing divide between the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and the other 99 percent, Romney gave voice to a split that has preoccupied conservatives during the past year: the 53 percent who pay federal income taxes and the 47 percent who do not.
In the videotaped remarks at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in Florida in May - brought to light on Monday by the liberal magazine Mother Jones - Romney equated the second group with those who support Obama. "My job is not to worry about those people," Romney says on the video. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
But to win the November 6 election, Romney will need the backing of many of those "takers," as his vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, has called them. The "47 percent" aren't just low-income city dwellers who rely on food stamps, housing support and other programs that traditionally have been championed by Democrats. Many are retirees and working-class white voters who are wary of government's role in their lives and who have tended to vote for Republicans in recent years, even as they take advantage of tax credits and government assistance.
Romney's challenge now is to soften his blunt language into an effective appeal to those who have struggled in the wake of the worst recession since the 1930s.
And despite his harsh language at the Florida fundraiser, analysts say he will have to assure voters that he could be a president for all Americans, not just half of them. "He's going to have to explain it in a much more concise and compassionate way, especially when Obama will likely challenge him on it," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
So far, Romney has been unable to translate widespread dissatisfaction with the economy into a lead in the polls, as voters consistently have rated Obama as more likeable and trustworthy.
Romney, a former private equity executive with an estimated fortune of $250 million, already is battling perceptions that he is an out-of-touch elitist, in part because of ads by Obama's team that have cast Romney as a job killer whose company, Bain Capital, sent thousands of U.S. jobs overseas. The video could cement a perception that he does not care about the concerns of ordinary Americans, several observers said.
"This is going to stick in a lot of throats," said Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz.
The percentage of U.S. households that paid no federal income taxes in 2011 was actually closer to 46 percent, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. The Census Bureau says a record 49 percent of households received government benefits this year. Both figures have increased sharply in recent years because of an aging population and the deepest recession since the 1930s.
The trend has alarmed conservatives, who worry that the growth of the welfare state could sap Americans' initiative. "I think we're coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society," Ryan said at the Heritage Foundation last October, long before Romney selected him as his vice presidential running mate.
Other prominent Republicans, including former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, have argued that everyone should pay at least a nominal amount of income tax.
But the divide between "makers" and "takers" is not as simple as Romney put it. According to the Tax Policy Center, almost two-thirds of those who paid no income taxes did pay federal payroll taxes, which support the Social Security pension program and the Medicare health plan. Many are exempt thanks to lower tax rates and targeted tax breaks that were pushed by Republicans.
Among those who receive government benefits, one-third received Social Security and Medicare - popular programs that are available to all retirees, not just those with low incomes. Romney will need support of people in both groups if he is going to win.
ELDERLY ARE KEY
Elderly voters have become an important part of the Republican coalition in recent elections, and Romney is struggling to hold on to his advantage among voters age 60 and older. Romney's lead over Obama among voters in that group was nearly 20 percentage points last week but has declined to less than a 4-point lead this week, according to Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls. Obama leads among all other age groups.
Romney is not likely to win among lower-income voters but he will need to limit his losses among this group in order to carry battleground states such as Ohio. Romney currently has the backing of 37 percent of voters with income under $50,000, according to a New York Times/CBS poll released last week.
Conservative pundit Bill Kristol termed Romney's "47 percent" comments "stupid and arrogant" in the Weekly Standard and warned that they could alienate voters in both of those groups.
A Republican congressional aide said Romney's remarks were "completely boneheaded" and could hurt his appeal among undecided voters. The aide said he did not think support would erode among Republicans, however.
Romney intends to talk in coming days about his plan to boost the economy and create more good-paying jobs that would allow people to earn enough money to pay taxes, a campaign official said. "They shouldn't be on food stamps, they should be getting paychecks," the aide said.
The first debate with Obama on October 3 now looms as a particularly important hurdle for Romney, who will have to convince financially struggling voters that he is not writing them off, several Republicans said.
"The debates are crucial," Republican strategist Taylor Griffin said. "If Romney can put these gaffes in the context of the fact that he's someone who knows how to run things, operate things, he'll do OK."
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro)