MINNEAPOLIS Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ran into a wall of criticism on Wednesday for remarks suggesting he was indifferent to America's poor, after scoring a resounding victory in the Florida primary.
The wealthy ex-governor of Massachusetts and former private equity executive gave a clumsy reminder while speaking to CNN of the challenges he faces winning over voters struggling with the economic downturn and high unemployment.
In an interview on the morning after he trounced rival Newt Gingrich in Florida, Romney said he was not concerned about the poorest or richest Americans and his primary focus was on the middle class.
"I'm not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there," he said, adding, "If it needs repair, I'll fix it."
While he was making a point also made by President Barack Obama about the need to shore up the American middle class, Romney's language fed perceptions that he is out of touch with ordinary people.
"You can choose where to focus, you can focus on the rich, that's not my focus. You can focus on the very poor, that's not my focus. My focus is on middle income Americans, retirees living on Social Security, people who can't find work," Romney said.
Obama's campaign seized on the remarks.
Jim Messina, Obama's campaign director, said, "So much for 'we're all in this together.' Romney today: 'I'm not concerned about the very poor,'" in a message on Twitter.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse promptly emailed Romney's comments to journalists, with the introduction, "I'm glad he cleared that up."
The fuss took the shine off Romney's triumph in Florida, where he captured 46 percent of the vote to Gingrich's 32 percent after pounding his nearest rival with negative advertisements.
The victory restored him to front-runner status in the state-by-state battle for the Republican nomination to run against Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 general election.
Romney said his comments had been taken out of context and that his message was that his energy would be devoted to helping middle income people.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I - no no. You've got to take the whole sentence, all right, as opposed to saying, and then change it just a little bit, because then it sounds very different," Romney told reporters as he flew to Minneapolis.
HISTORY OF GAFFES
Romney, who has a personal fortune estimated at $270 million, has a history of comments that make him look out of step with ordinary people.
Last month, he said he had made "not very much" in speaking fees - and the total turned out to be $375,000. In December, he blundered in a debate by offering Texas Governor Rick Perry a $10,000 bet on healthcare policy.
He came under criticism earlier in the campaign for saying that he liked to fire people, although those comments were taken out of context. And earlier in the year, he told jobless workers in Florida that he was unemployed too, and he also asserted that, "Corporations are people."
U.S. voters have said the sputtering economy is their main concern for the 2012 elections.
Romney has touted his business experience while harshly criticizing Obama and his Republican opponents for their lack of private sector experience.
Separately, CNN reported that Romney will receive Secret Service protection "within days," citing a federal law enforcement source. Romney's campaign declined to comment because the report involved a security matter.
After his second-place showing in Florida, Gingrich vowed to battle on, rallying supporters with the reminder that there are 46 more state contests left in the nominating fight. The former speaker of the House of Representatives did not call Romney to congratulate him on his victory.
The next voting will be caucuses on Saturday in Nevada, where Romney is expected to enjoy strong support from a large population of his fellow Mormons. Nevada also has the country's highest unemployment rate, of 12.6 percent in December.
Nevada is followed next Tuesday by caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and a primary in Missouri.
Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator who won in Iowa's kick-off contest, came in third in Florida at 13 percent, followed by U.S. Representative Ron Paul at 7 percent. They are also continuing their campaigns.
With Gingrich vowing to fight on for months, there is the potential for a divisive battle that could damage the party's chances of denying Obama re-election in November.
The ugly fight in Florida highlighted deep divisions among Republicans. The party establishment largely backed Romney, but the most conservative voters, particularly those from the small-government, fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, and religious conservatives, leaned toward Gingrich.
Romney's victory also came after his team spent millions of dollars on television ads that blasted Gingrich, raising doubts about whether the former Massachusetts governor can energize the Republican base and rally supporters to his side rather than win by tearing down opponents.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Paul Simao in Washington and Steve Holland in Tampa.; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)