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Mitt Romney refocuses as President Barack Obama decries 'victim' claim

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19 2012 6:25 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama talks with David Letterman on the set of the "Late Show With David Letterman" at the Ed Sullivan Theater, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, in New York.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are moving the presidential campaign back to familiar ground, grappling over the proper role of government in a debate where clumsy, seemingly dismissive statements have made both men susceptible to caricature.

Romney on Tuesday sought to recover from an unguarded comments caught on video, as some wary Republicans watched for signs of lost ground. But in a race virtually unaffected by surprise developments or bad economic news, the contest appeared destined to remain close.

Still, Obama ridiculed Romney's claim — made at a secretly recorded fundraiser in May — that nearly half of Americans believe they are victims and entitled to a range of government support and that as a candidate he doesn't feel a need to worry about them.

"If you want to be president, you have to work for everyone, not just for some," Obama said in an appearance on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Romney's running mate, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, called Romney's comments "obviously inarticulate."

Romney, for his part, did not apologize for the assertion, though he said it was "not elegantly stated."

Elegant or not, Democrats seized on the remark to build on their image of Romney as out of touch.

With early and absentee voting beginning in a number of states, both sides hoped to lock in votes long before Election Day. With the first of three presidential debates scheduled for Oct. 3, the two camps were looking to secure any advantage as Obama's post-convention polling advantage seemed to be ebbing. Obama planned a rare full day at the White House Wednesday; Romney scheduled a fundraiser in Atlanta and two appearances in Miami, including a candidate forum with the Spanish-language TV network Univision.

Romney did not back away from his central thesis that Obama has created a culture of dependency. In an interview Tuesday with Fox News he declared that the idea of government redistributing income is an "entirely foreign concept," even though popular and well-established federal programs like Social Security and Medicare rely on taxes from one group to pay for the benefits of others.

If anyone understands how one's own words can ricochet badly it is Obama. In July, campaigning in Virginia, Obama made the case for government's role in helping small businesses prosper.

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," Obama said then. "There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Republicans seized on the incomplete sound bite, "If you've got a business — you didn't build that."

Last month, Obama stood by his larger point, but conceded, "Obviously I have regrets for my syntax."

On Tuesday, Romney also referred to videotaped comments Obama made in 1998 as evidence he favored government redistribution of wealth. As an Illinois state senator at the time, Obama said he believes in redistribution "at least to a certain level to make sure everybody's got a shot."

The caricatures merely exaggerate what are real differences between the candidates. Obama does indeed believe in a role for government as the embodiment of community to promote industry and help the afflicted. Romney sees government as an obstacle, a creature that hinders innovation and creates a dependent culture.

But language is important, and Romney's casual remarks at a closed fundraiser in May, not meant for public consumption, were jarring and overly simplistic. He complained that 47 percent of Americans don't pay taxes and suggested that Obama supporters were voters who all relied on government assistance.

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