SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney on Tuesday said that President Obama’s economic vision embraces the notion that government is an instrument to be used to redistribute people’s hard-earned money as the Republican presidential candidate tried to curtail political damage from caught-on-camera comments that indicated he has written off nearly half of the electorate.
Fighting to overcome his own comments made in a May fundraiser that 47 percent of the country doesn’t pay income taxes, views itself as victims and won’t vote for him, Mr. Romney pointed to a newly surfaced 1998 audio clip of Mr. Obama, posted on YouTube on Tuesday, in which then-state Sen. Barack Obama said he supported wealth redistribution.
Mr. Romney, who did not back away from his own comments about voters, said the two clips capture what this year’s election is about.
“I think a society based on a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that is the wrong course for America,” Mr. Romney said in an interview on Fox News. “I believe the right course for America is one where government steps in to help those in need … but then we let people build their own lives, create enterprises.”
Asked about the Romney remarks during a taping in New York on Tuesday of the “Late Show with David Letterman,” Mr. Obama replied, “If you want to be president, you have to work for everyone, not just for some.”
Mr. Romney’s attempt to right the ship comes during a week in which he has been dogged by video from the May 17 closed-door fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla.
Initial clips showed him saying many voters were dependent on government and saw themselves as victims, which is why they won’t vote for him.
The grandson of former President Jimmy Carter told the Associated Press that he persuaded the source who secretly taped Mr. Romney at the fundraiser to release the full video to the media. James Carter IV says he tracked down the source in August via Twitter and persuaded the person to release the video to Mother Jones, a liberal online publication.
On Tuesday, Mother Jones detailed another part of the recording, in which Mr. Romney doubted whether a two-state solution could be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians, arguing a Palestinian state would be an opening for Iran or another enemy to get a better vantage for striking Israel.
“I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there’s just no way,” Mr. Romney said, offering a blunt assessment he has never shared on the public campaign trail.
White House press secretary Jay Carney pounced, characterizing Mr. Romney’s comments as divisive, while defending similar unguarded remarks that Mr. Obama made in 2008, telling voters at a fundraiser in San Francisco that voters living in small-town Pennsylvania “cling to guns or religion.”
Mr. Carney said those comments were made four years ago, and were well-debated at the time, but that Mr. Obama has proved as president that he’s fighting for all Americans.
“When you’re president of the United States, you’re president of all the people, not just the people who voted for you,” Mr. Carney said.
In the brief 1998 audio clip, Mr. Obama defends government action to redistribute wealth, though he said he also believes 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.”
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in pointing to the audio, Mr. Romney was trying to distract from his own problems.
“Fourteen years ago, then-Sen. Obama was making an argument for a more efficient, more effective government — specifically citing city government agencies that he didn’t think were working effectively. He believed then, and believes now, that there are steps we can take to promote opportunity and ensure that all Americans have a fair shot if they work hard.”
The back-and-forth comes at a tough time for the Romney campaign, which is reeling from a story in Politico about infighting in the campaign and increasing concerns among other Republicans that they have made strategic errors while failing to capitalize on voter angst over the economy.
Mr. Romney’s advisers said they would begin to offer more specifics as a way of bolstering their campaign message.
Writing in the New York Times, conservative columnist David Brooks dubbed the Republican candidate “Thurston Howell Romney” — referring to the character on the iconic “Gilligan’s Island” sitcom — a rich man who seemed to be out of touch.
“Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater,” Mr. Brooks wrote. “But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?”
Others disagreed, saying Mr. Romney’s comments on the electorate reflect what a number of voters also believe.
“It is not only a moment of authenticity, but it is a moment of authenticity that resonates exceedingly strong with folks on the right side of the political spectrum,” said Mike McKenna, a GOP consultant. “For a group of nervous girls, like the Romney campaign can sometimes be, this is an unscripted and uncomfortable moment. But it is all upside.”
Mr. Romney, at the May fundraiser, said that the 47 percent of the electorate that will support Mr. Obama are “dependent upon government” and believe they are “victims,” that “government has a responsibility to care for them” and that they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Mr. Romney stood by his comments at a hastily arranged news conference in Orange County, Calif., on Monday, where he said the “off the cuff” remarks could have been more elegant, but his point was politically sound.
“It’s a message which I’m going to carry and continue to carry — which is, look, the president’s approach is attractive to people who are not paying taxes because frankly my discussion about lowering taxes isn’t as attractive to them, and therefore I’m not likely to draw them into my campaign as effectively as those who are in the middle,” Mr. Romney said.
Speaking to reporters on the campaign plane Tuesday, Kevin Madden, a top Romney adviser, shrugged off the idea that the video footage could torpedo Mr. Romney’s presidential dreams, saying that undecided voters are still interested in which candidate is best equipped to strengthen the economy and get people out of the unemployment lines.
“What matters to voters is whether or not they are going to have the answers that they need about how we are going to put the economy back on track,” he said. “That is where our focus is.”
• David Boyer contributed to this article.