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.
The U.S. income tax is designed to be progressive, so those who earn the most theoretically pay the most. Through programs as diverse as Social Security, Medicare, health care and food stamps, the government collects tax revenue and pays it out in the form of benefits for those who qualify.
Obama responded during his appearance on Letterman's show.
"One thing I've learned as president is that you represent the entire country," he said, adding, "There are not a lot of people out there who think they are victims."
On Wednesday, the Obama-supporting super PAC Priorities USA Action began running the first TV ad using clips from the Romney fundraiser. The ad closes with a narrator saying Romney will never convince middle-class voters he's on their side.
Republicans said Romney need to sharpen his argument and make clear that he was being inclusive by promoting policies that would help all Americans regardless of their circumstances.
"He's got a tax policy that will drive economic growth and economic growth will help everybody," said Republican pollster David Winston, who has worked closely with House Republican leaders. "That's his challenge — to lay out that argument."
In an op-ed essay in Wednesday's USA Today, Romney tried to do just that. "My course for the American economy will encourage private investment and personal freedom," Romney wrote. "Instead of creating a web of dependency, I will pursue policies that grow our economy and lift Americans out of poverty."
But in his Fox interview Tuesday, Romney continued to cast a segment of the country as unable to rally around his tax-cutting message.
"I recognize that those people who are not paying income tax are going to say, 'Gosh, this provision that Mitt keeps talking about lowering income taxes, that's not going to be real attractive to them,'" Romney said. "And those that are dependent upon government and those that think government's job is to redistribute, I'm not going to get them."
Some Republicans distanced themselves from him.
"I disagree with Governor Romney's insinuation that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care," Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate for a Senate seat in Connecticut, said in a statement posted to her website.
Sen. Scott Brown, in a tough race for re-election in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, said of Romney's comments, "That's not the way I view the world."
And New Mexico's Republican governor, Susana Martinez, reacting to Romney's remarks, noted that many in New Mexico live at or below the poverty level, and "that safety net is a good thing."
On Wednesday, the Romney campaign is releasing two television ads accusing the Obama administration of conducting a "war on coal." The ads come one day after Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources disclosed that it is closing mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and eliminating 1,200 jobs. Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield blamed the shutdowns, in part, on "a regulatory environment that's aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal."
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