ATLANTA Mitt Romney said on Wednesday he would do a better job of helping the poor than President Barack Obama as the Republican candidate tried to recover from his disparaging remarks about the half of the country that gets government benefits.
Romney has sought to make the November 6 election a referendum on Obama's economic stewardship, but the spotlight over the past week has been fixed firmly on his own missteps. A secretly recorded video that surfaced on Monday showed him writing off supporters of Obama as welfare recipients with no sense of personal responsibility.
Some 43 percent of registered voters thought less of Romney after seeing the video, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, while a mostly Republican 26 percent viewed him more favorably. Independent voters were more likely to say the video lowered their opinion of Romney.
Romney hopes to recover by framing the presidential election as a choice between big government and economic growth. At an Atlanta fundraiser, Romney said he wanted to spur job creation by encouraging private enterprise.
"The question in this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class. I do, he does," Romney said, jabbing the podium with his index finger and his voice rising with emotion.
"The question is who can help the poor and the middle class. I can, he can't and he's proven it in four years," he said.
Romney's campaign argues that Obama has presided over a stagnant economy, forcing more Americans to rely on food stamps and other government assistance.
The video, recorded in May at a luxurious Florida home, shows Romney telling wealthy campaign donors that 47 percent of Americans would back Obama no matter what. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," he says.
The remarks fed into a perception that multimillionaire Romney has battled throughout the campaign: that he is insensitive to the struggles of less-wealthy Americans. They drew condemnation from Democrats and an array of Republicans, including congressional candidates and conservative columnists.
In an apparent attempt to deflect attention from the video, Republicans are pointing to a 1998 recording that surfaced this week of Obama discussing his belief in "a certain level" of wealth distribution.
"Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth," Romney's vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, said at a campaign event in Danville, Virginia.
Romney had hoped to spend the week fleshing out his plan to bolster the economy, until the video went viral on Monday and pushed the campaign into damage-control mode. It came on the heels of a Politico report about dysfunction in his campaign and a statement on strife in the Middle East that was widely criticized as unstatesmanlike.
Republicans worry that their presidential candidate may not be able to recover in the seven weeks before the election.
"There is a broad and growing feeling now, among Republicans, that this thing is slipping out of Romney's hands," Wall Street Journal editorial writer Peggy Noonan wrote in a blog post. "It's time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one."
Some Republicans worry that Romney may compromise their party's ability to win control of the Senate and hold on to the House of Representatives. Nevada Senator Dean Heller and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez joined a growing chorus of Republican candidates or officeholders who have repudiated the remarks.
A Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll showed Obama leading Romney 48 percent to 43 percent among likely voters. Among all registered voters, Obama led 49 percent to 38 percent.
Most other polls have yet to reflect fallout from Romney's comments, but they show that Romney already trailed Obama before the liberal magazine Mother Jones released the video this week.
A Pew Research Center poll found that Obama was in a stronger position at this point in the race than any presidential candidate since 1996. Early voting is already under way in North Carolina and will begin in other states in coming weeks.
Romney already faces a more difficult path to victory as he can count on fewer sure wins than Obama among the 51 state contests that determine the outcome of the election. Across the handful of states that remain competitive, Obama holds an advantage of 48 percent to 46 percent, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll.
In the video, Romney gave voice to a conservative preoccupation that the expansion of income-tax breaks and the growing reach of government benefit programs risk dividing the country into "makers" and "takers."
Romney lumped all Obama supporters into the latter group.
Romney was referring to the 46 percent of U.S. households that paid no income taxes last year and the 49 percent that received some form of government benefit, from housing assistance to Social Security pensions. Those two groups include many Republican voters whose support Romney will need to win the White House.
Romney's father received welfare benefits as a child when his family was driven out of Mexico, according to a television interview with his mother that recently surfaced online.
(Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)