COSTA MESA, Calif. — Mitt Romney confronted a new distraction Monday when a video surfaced that shows him dismissing President Obama's supporters as people who take no responsibility for their livelihoods and who think they are entitled to government handouts.
In the video, published by Mother Jones magazine, the Republican presidential nominee tells a private audience of campaign donors that Obama backers will vote for the president "no matter what." Romney said that he does not "worry about those people."
Romney hastily called a news conference here Monday night to try to diffuse the controversy. He acknowledged having made the remarks and stood by them, although he conceded that they were "not elegantly stated" and that he had been "speaking off the cuff in response to a question."
Romney said his comments underscored the contrast between the two candidates' divergent visions for the nation.
"This is ultimately a question about direction for the country: Do you believe in a government-centered society that provides more and more benefits or do you believe instead in a free-enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams?" he told reporters. He added that his is a "free-people, free-enterprise, free-market, consumer-driven approach."
Romney addressed reporters from a room deep inside the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, where upstairs hundreds of his supporters were standing around elegantly appointed tables swilling wine and awaiting the candidate's remarks at a fundraiser. Tickets cost as much as $50,000 per person, and the campaign said it raised $4 million at the event.
In the video, Romney is seen speaking at a May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., at the home of Marc Leder, a private equity manager, according to the Mother Jones article.
"There are 47 percent who are with him," Romney said of Obama, "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. These are people who pay no income tax."
He said that his job "is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
His remarks could undermine recent attempts by his campaign to present him as a caring and charitable leader in his church and community.
Romney, trying to provide some context for the comments he made in the video, told reporters Monday night that he was talking to donors about campaign strategy, not his vision for the country.
"It's not elegantly stated. . . . I'm speaking off the cuff in response to a question," he said. Romney said that "people who are parting with their monies are very interested in knowing can you win or not and that's what this was addressing."
"Of course individuals are going to take responsibility for their lives," he said. "My campaign is about helping people take more responsibility and becoming employed again, particularly those who don't have work. This whole campaign is based on getting people jobs again, putting people back to work," he said.
The Obama campaign quickly seized on the video.
"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. It's hard to serve as president for all Americans when you've disdainfully written off half the nation," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement.
An Obama campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said later that it is possible that excerpts from the video will show up in a forthcoming campaign ad.
In the video, Romney said that he does not vilify the president because his own campaign's discussions with focus groups of independent voters who supported Obama in 2008 suggest that tough talk does not work.
"When you say to them, 'Do you think Barack Obama is a failure?' they overwhelmingly say, 'No,' " Romney said. "They love the phrase that he's 'over his head.' . . . We spend our days with people who agree with us. And these people are people who voted for him and don't agree with us."
Candidates tend to talk more freely at closed-door fundraisers than they do publicly, and when those remarks leak out, they can create controversy. In 2008, Obama told supporters at a San Francisco fundraiser that small-town Pennsylvania voters "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion" — a quote that was used against him Monday by Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, during a campaign event in Des Moines.
The mention of Obama's 2008 remarks — and Ryan's "This Catholic deer hunter is guilty as charged" rejoinder — has been a staple of the GOP vice-presidential nominee's stump speech.
In the video, Romney also noted his deficit in the polls among Hispanic voters and joked about his family background. His father, George, was born in Mexico while his American grandparents lived there. "Had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot of winning this."
He added: "I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino."
The video, released in bits and pieces, appears to have been captured by a hidden camera during a question-and-answer session that was closed to reporters.Ten separate portions of the video, including Romney's remarks about Obama supporters, were first posted on YouTube on Aug. 27 by a user identified as "Anne Onymous," who is listed as having joined the video service that day. The user's account includes a picture of a young woman, and lists their location as "China."