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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Mitt Romney says he's standing by the substance of his comments about American voters. A recording first revealed by Mother Jones magazine captured Romney at a fundraiser. He said 47 percent of Americans are hopelessly lost to President Obama, that they pay no income taxes, quote, "think they are victims, that they're entitled," and that he can't make them take responsibility or care for their lives.
Last night, Romney walked back some of the phrasing.
MITT ROMNEY: It's not elegantly stated. Let me put it that way. I'm speaking off-the-cuff in response to a question. And I'm sure I could state it more clearly in a more effective way, than I did in a setting like that.
INSKEEP: But having said that, Romney insisted he will stick with the message, as some conservatives, anyway, have urged them to do.
NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line. Good morning, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What was Romney talking about?
LIASSON: Romney was talking about, as you said, a secretly taped video which was made on May 17 at a fundraiser in Boca Raton. We don't know who made the recording. But in it, Romney says there are 47 percent of Americans who are going to vote for the president no matter what.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
ROMNEY: There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they're entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. But that's - that's an entitlement and the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.
I mean the president starts off with the 48, 49, 40 - he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax.
LIASSON: Ouch. So there's nothing like speaking to a room of wealthy donors and describing half of America is shiftless moochers and parasites to reinforce the stereotype that the Obama campaign has been working so hard to create of Romney, that he's rich and out of touch and doesn't understand the lives of ordinary Americans.
This is a lot like what happened to President Obama in 2008, where he was surreptitiously filmed saying that certain working class voters cling to their God and guns. Only this one probably will have worse fallout.
INSKEEP: Well, Romney was being rather specific here with his 47 percent and he's standing by it. So let's try to figure it out. Who are the 47 percent?
LIASSON: Well, they're actually about 46 percent, according to a study. They don't pay income tax for a variety of reasons. Some of them are too poor to pay income tax. They're working poor, but they get tax credits. Some of them are elderly. Now, these people do pay plenty of tax. They pay payroll tax and sales tax and property taxes, but that's who he was talking about.
INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to a little bit more of what Romney had to say about them.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
ROMNEY: My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to 10 percent in the center.
LIASSON: This is a pretty stunning indictment - about half of the American people, that they'll never take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
INSKEEP: David Brooks of The New York Times has already written about this - a withering column. I just want to read a bit of it here. He says, quote, "The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees." And that the people who've benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle class workers, more so than that dependent poor.
Was Romney actually talking - when he talked about his 47 percent - was he actually talking about a big part of the Republican base?
LIASSON: Well, I think you're going to see a huge debate and a lot of discussion about what he was actually talking about. I think what he was referring to was what a lot of Republicans talk about when they talk about the people who pay no income tax. That's the tax that matters to conservatives. And it is a vision of people who get benefits from the government as opposed to the, quote, "job creators."
But he is standing by this basic argument, that he's offering an alternative to President Obama's, quote, "government-centered society."
INSKEEP: OK, you've already got political analysts saying, oh, the race is over now. But it is only September. Has this race shifted in any decisive way?
LIASSON: Well, the race had shifted in a small way before he made these comments. President Obama is solidifying his small but steady lead in the battleground states. And this comes at a really bad time for the Romney campaign. He's been facing stories about internal disarray in his campaign.
It makes it harder for the Romney campaign to control the message. They've been shifting strategies. They started out focusing exclusively on the economy. Then they flirted with the more ideological campaign when they picked Paul Ryan. Then it was foreign policy. Now they're trying to get him to talk more about his policies.
But this comes at a time when one Republican after another is calling their campaign either depressingly inept, as David Brooks put it - troubled campaign. Republicans are really wringing their hands about this.
INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Mara Liasson.
LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And this morning, Mother Jones has released more tape of Romney at that fundraiser, this time discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He says, I'm torn. Romney says he sees no way to peace with the Palestinians: I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway. Romney speaks instead of kicking the ball down the field. He adds that a former secretary of state called him to say peace might be possible, but Romney added: I didn't delve into it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.