ATLANTA — Far from backing away, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his campaign are embracing his claim that nearly half of Americans are dependent on government as they seek to frame the race as a choice between the GOP's wealth-creation policies and what they called President Obama's wealth-redistribution message.
Mr. Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan are trying to regain steam after the nominee's caught-on-camera remarks at a spring fundraiser that seemed to write off 47 percent of the electorate for holding a "victim" mentality that made them impervious to Mr. Romney's tax-cutting agenda.
Fanning out across the southeast Wednesday, Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan said the president takes a "government-centered" view of the economy, while the GOP wants to unshackle businesses from burdensome bureaucrats.
"It's an entirely foreign concept that will not work, that has not worked," Mr. Romney said at a fundraiser in Atlanta. "That has never worked anywhere in the world."
At a later appearance at a Miami political forum televised by the Spanish-language network Univision, Mr. Romney reached out to voters who might have been turned off by the "47 percent" comments.
"I know that I'm not going to get 100 percent of the vote, and my campaign will focus on those people we think we can bring in to support me, but this is a campaign about helping people who need help," he said. "My campaign is about the 100 percent in America."
Campaign manager Matt Rhoades, meanwhile, made the case in a morning memo that a newly surfaced audio clip from 1998 — in which then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama said he believes in wealth redistribution — is crystallizing the differences between the two candidates with 48 days to go before Election Day.
"Mitt Romney's vision for America is an opportunity society where free people and free enterprise thrive and success is admired and emulated, not attacked," Mr. Rhoades said. "President Obama's vision for America is a government-centered society where government grows bigger and more active, occupying more of our everyday lives."
The White House said the GOP's attempt to reframe Mr. Romney's comments on the 47 percent were "desperate," and said focusing on a 14-year-old audio recording was an attempt to divert attention.
"When a campaign is having a bad day or a bad week, or some might say a bad month … you sometimes witness an effort to — it seems desperate — to change the subject," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
In the brief 1998 audio clip, posted on YouTube on Tuesday, Mr. Obama defends government action to redistribute wealth, though he also argues that those who defend government must work to make it streamlined and effective.
"I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution," he said. "Because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody's got a shot."
The latest round of attacks and counterattacks follow a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll that showed Mr. Romney has lost a little more ground to the Democrat over the past month.
The survey of 900 registered voters showed Mr. Obama with a 50 percent to 45 percent lead, and found he has pulled even when respondents are asked who is better equipped to deal with the economy. People are also growing increasingly optimistic about the direction of the country and the economy.
But the poll also showed an increasing percentage of people disapprove of Mr. Obama's handling of foreign policy after the assaults on U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East — including the attack on a consulate in Libya that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Some Republicans running for the House and Senate are also distancing themselves from Mr. Romney's comments, saying they are believers in a strong social safety net.
Sen. Scott P. Brown, Massachusetts Republican, told the Hill newspaper that Mr. Romney's remarks are "not the way I view the world."
"As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in," Mr. Brown said.
He is advised by Eric Fehrnstrom, who is also a top aide to Mr. Romney, which opens up an interesting subplot in the campaign.
Mr. Romney began the week with high hopes of cutting into Mr. Obama's lead in the polls by talking up the specifics of his economic plan, but instead he has dealt with media reports of disarray in his campaign and the repercussions from the "47 percent" comments that were surreptitiously recorded at a May fundraiser in Florida.
Mr. Romney stood by the point he was attempting to make on the recording, but conceded the argument was "not elegantly stated."
"It's not my job to worry about those people," Mr. Romney said in the grainy video, which was leaked to the left-wing magazine Mother Jones.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Wednesday the comments provide a "rare look at the real Romney."
Mr. Romney also faced fire from fellow Republicans.
"It's time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one," conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "It's not big, it's not brave, it's not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It's always been too small for the moment."
Mr. Romney has said the off-the-cuff remarks could have been better expressed, but he has stood by his comments, arguing they have helped define the race as a contest between two different visions that he and Mr. Obama have for the future of the nation.
Mr. Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and vice presidential nominee, laid out the divide while campaigning in Danville, Va.
"President Obama said that he believes in redistribution," he said. "Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth."
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