Mitt Romney on Tuesday fully embraced the substance of his secretly recorded comments that 47 percent of Americans are too dependent on government, saying that his views helped define the philosophical choice for voters in his campaign against President Barack Obama.
"The president's view is one of a larger government; I disagree," Romney said in an interview on Fox News. "I think a society based on a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that's the wrong course for America."
The comments were Romney's attempt to find some benefit in the political furor after the disclosure of statements he made at a closed fundraiser in Florida in May, where he spoke of nearly half of Americans who pay no federal income taxes and, in his analysis, would never vote for him.
Those are people, he said at the fundraiser, who are "dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them."
Romney, who on Monday called the remarks "inelegant," suggested Tuesday that it was time for a full debate about dependency, entitlements and what his campaign characterized as a long history of Obama's support for "redistributionist" policies.
But despite the effort by Romney to take the offensive, his campaign spent the day working to keep the episode from becoming a turning point in a campaign that until now has remained neck and neck, and trying to minimize the damage from the disclosure of another set of remarks from the fundraiser, in which he suggested that a two-state solution for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians longstanding U.S. policy was not feasible.
Some Republicans applauded Romney's determination not to back away from his statements about taxes and entitlements, which echo themes promoted in recent years by many conservatives, including Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan.
But the developments gave Democrats new ammunition to make their case that Romney is out of touch with the needs and values of the middle class and does not understand the economic forces at work in many families.
It also left some Republicans distancing themselves from Romney's remarks. And it forced the Romney campaign to adopt a new message just a day after starting an ad campaign built around different themes, as officials closely monitored whether donors were growing more nervous about the management of Romney's candidacy and his prospects in November.
In an appearance on "Late Show" with David Letterman, Obama accused Romney of "writing off a big chunk of the country" and said it would be wrong for a politician to "suggest that because someone doesn't agree with me that they're victims or they're unpatriotic."
In the editing bays of the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action, producers were finding ways to splice bits of Romney's commentary at the fundraiser into videos and television advertisements, a sign that the recordings will provide the Democrats fodder until Election Day.
Two Republican Senate candidates in hard-fought races in the Democratic territory of the Northeast, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Linda McMahon of Connecticut, disavowed the remarks.
"Not the way I view the world," Brown said; "I disagree," McMahon said.
Even some conservative intellectuals argued with Romney's description of the 47 percent of people who do not pay income taxes as Obama voters. They noted that among that 47 percent were potentially Romney-supporting "seniors, who might well 'believe they are entitled to health care,' " as the Weekly Standard editor William Kristol wrote, and "lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country."
Romney effectively ceded that point in his interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, saying he was referring instead to "those that are dependent on government and those that think government's job is to redistribute I'm not going to get them."
The tension of the moment spilled out in unguarded moments with Romney's aides, one of whom likened the situation to a circus. Two advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity in separate interviews, expressed frustration that the comments at the fundraiser held at the Boca Raton, Fla., home of the financier Marc Leder played into the image that Democrats have promoted all year of Romney as uncaring about average voters and concerned only about himself and his wealthy friends.
Romney's campaign organized back-to-back conference calls to reassure donors, featuring a coterie of top advisers Matt Rhoades, the campaign manager; Spencer Zwick, the finance director; and Beth Myers and Ed Gillespie, both senior advisers.
One of the calls, with Romney's national finance committee, was moved up from its usually scheduled time near the end of the week, and on the second, larger donor call, the campaign urged the donors to "have at it."
Romney's aides said that they were keeping perspective in a way that the news media "feeding frenzy" was not.
A Gallup daily tracking poll that had shown Obama with a growing edge after the Democratic convention effectively had the race as a tie on Tuesday, though an NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday night showed the president with more of an edge and with his approval rating reaching the 50 percent mark.
While Romney's aides played down the significance of the recordings, they said they were most unwelcome because they yet again kept Romney from getting back to his message on the economy, delivering a clearer sense to voters of where he would lead the nation.
"Every day that he is not talking about jobs, he is losing an opportunity to draw a contrast with the president's abysmal record on the economy," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Referring to Medicare and Social Security, she said she feared that Romney's comments at the fundraiser would paint him as being against "earned programs that people pay into" and have "widespread support."
"He has just not brought sufficient clarity to what his vision for America is," Collins said.
Throughout the country, Republicans reacted with a mix of trepidation and defiance. Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota, Fla., said he believed it would "play into his strength," while Steve Armstrong, chairman of the Linn County, Iowa, Republicans, called it "an unfortunate mistake."
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he believed that Romney would ultimately win the argument on substance, but cautioned that Republicans need to show that "they are concerned about every American."