Amid Video Controversy, Romney Punches Back

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JIM YOUNG / Reuters

Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign fundraiser in Salt Lake City, Utah, Sept. 18, 2012

Dallas, Texas

If Mitt Romney is panicking, it’s hard to tell. As Democrats salivate and Republicans squirm over a surreptitiously recorded video that shows Romney uttering politically fraught remarks to donors at a private fundraiser earlier this year, the Republican nominee is combating the onslaught by going back on attack.

The defiant posture is becoming Romney’s default mode of damage control — a mode he’s been in all too frequently of late. After critics accused him of politicizing the Middle Eastern embassy attacks last week, Romney dug in against President Obama’s handling of the crisis. Now, with a new group of detractors — including several prominent Republicans — growing increasingly anxious about the state of his campaign in the wake of damaging hidden-camera footage published by the liberal magazine Mother Jones, Romney has sought to re-frame the debate by using the clip to highlight the differences between his vision of government and Obama’s.

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The video, reportedly captured during a May fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., depicts Romney making disparaging remarks about 47% of voters, dismissing the importance of discussing policy during a campaign, and expressing skepticism that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to broker peace. The backlash put his campaign on the defensive. Romney’s rapid response team even briefly resorted to highlighting a YouTube video of the candidate’s wife doing an interview with a Colorado TV station, titled “Ann Romney to Fox31: Mitt Doesn’t Disdain the Poor.”

At a fundraiser Tuesday in Salt Lake City, which was open to a small group of press, Romney criticized the President for promoting a “government-centered America.” During an interview with Fox’s Neil Cavuto, Romney expanded on the differences between the two candidates’ vision of the role of government. “I think a society based on a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role…[is] the wrong course for America,” he said.

Romney’s campaign has sought to highlight the two candidates’ divergent governing philosophies by pointing to a newly surfaced 1998 video of Obama, then an Illinois state senator, telling a college audience in Chicago that he favored the redistribution of wealth. “I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution,” Obama says in the clip, promoted by conservative Internet impresario Matt Drudge, with whom the Romney campaign has close ties. “Because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure everybody’s got a shot.”

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But the 15-year old video did little Tuesday to deflect attention from the one roiling the presidential race. In a slapdash nighttime press conference Monday, Romney conceded that his remarks in the Mother Jones video were “not elegantly stated.” Jittery Northeastern Republicans like Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and Connecticut Senate nominee Linda McMahon edged away from Romney’s comments Tuesday, and he was pummeled by stalwart members of the conservative press. “It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one,” wrote the Wall Street Journal‘s Peggy Noonan. Even vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan acknowledged his running mate’s misstep, in slightly stronger language than Romney himself used. “He was obviously inarticulate,” Ryan told a Nevada television station in an interview aired Tuesday.

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Aides concede that the aftermath has been challenging. But publicly, at least, they are intent on stressing that the campaign has not been thrown off course by the videos. Senior adviser Kevin Madden told reporters Tuesday that Romney was “focused” — a word he used eight times in the space of a single answer — and eager to get back to his economic argument. “What matters to voters is whether or not we’re going to have the answers they need about putting the economy back on track, put the country going back in the right direction, so I think that’s where our focus remains,” said Madden. “It’s a very close, hard-fought campaign. I think it will be all the way until Election Day.”

MORE: Video Captures Uncensored Mitt Romney at Fundraiser