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.