EAGAN, Minn. — Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, confident after his Florida primary victory, ended up inviting criticism Wednesday when he said he's "not concerned about the very poor" because they have an "ample safety net."
Democrats and Republicans alike — including opponent Newt Gingrich — pounced and the GOP front-runner quickly sought to explain his remarks.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," Romney told reporters on his campaign plane when asked about the comments. "No, no, no. You've got to take the whole sentence, all right, it's mostly the same." He said his remark was consistent with his theme throughout the race, adding: "My energy is going to be devoted to helping middle-income people."
Despite that explanation, Romney's comments quickly became an immediate distraction from his message that he's more conservative than Gingrich and from the double-digit thumping the former House speaker sustained in Florida. His campaign worked behind the scenes to provide context for the comment.
Gingrich raised Romney's remark at his first event since losing the Florida primary. He read Romney's quotes aloud and they were met with boos from the crowd at a brewery in Reno, Nev.
"I am fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other," Gingrich said. "I am running to be the president of all the American people and I am concerned about all the American people."
As the day began, Romney told CNN from Florida: "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich. They're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."
"You can focus on the very poor, that's not my focus," he said.
President Barack Obama's re-election campaign was quick to criticize.
"So much for 'we're all in this together,'" tweeted Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.
Some conservative pundits also labeled it a gaffe and said it was evidence Romney wasn't prepared to run against Obama.
"The issue here is not that Romney is right or wrong, but that he is handing choice sound bites to the Democrats to make him as unlikeable as he made Newt Gingrich," said Erick Erickson on the conservative RedState blog. And Jonah Goldberg at the conservative National Review Online said of Romney: "Every time he seems to get into his groove and pull away he says things that make people think he doesn't know how to play the game."
With criticism mounting, Romney flew to Minnesota and addressed a rally before heading to Nevada. He also boasted in flight about his "huge" Florida victory.
Gay rights protesters in Minnesota threw glitter at Romney before he took the stage, making him the latest candidate to be "glittered" by activists opposed to his position on gay rights. Romney, who opposes gay marriage, put a positive spin on the sparkle in his hair.
"This is confetti! We just won Florida," he said as he took the stage.
Romney, whose central challenge is winning over skeptical conservatives, told reporters on the plane that the fact that he performed strongly among conservatives in Florida made sense because he's more conservative than Gingrich.
"I'm not saying he's not conservative. I'm just saying he's not the pure conservative he would have people believe, and I think folks in Florida saw through that," Romney said. His campaign also started airing a radio ad in Colorado on Wednesday that says "conservatives across America are supporting Mitt Romney."
But Romney immediately was forced to clarify his comments about the poor.
Asked whether his words might strike some as odd, Romney said: "We will hear from the Democrat party the plight of the poor and there's no question, it's not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor." Romney added that he's more worried about the unemployed, people living on Social Security and those struggling to send their kids to college.
"We have a very ample safety net and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor," Romney said. "But the middle-income Americans, they're the folks that are really struggling right now."
Romney has broached the subject of the poor repeatedly on the campaign trail but until Wednesday had been more careful in his choice of words.
"I worry about the very poor and I want to make sure that our safety net is there," Romney said in New Hampshire in December, says the middle class are "the people I'm really concerned about right now."
Wednesday wasn't the first time that Romney, who made millions working in private equity, has been accused of insensitivity on matters of wealth. He once said "I like being able to fire people" when talking about having the ability to choose service providers. He also has declared that he knew what it was like to worry about being "pink-slipped" out of a job.
At a Las Vegas rally later Wednesday, Romney criticized the Obama administration's decision to announce that U.S. and other international forces in Afghanistan plan to end their combat role in 2013 and continue a training and advisory role with Afghan forces through the next year. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid out the administration position to reporters while traveling to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.
Romney said that announcing a withdrawal date aids America's enemies. "He announced that so the Taliban hears that, the Pakistanis hear it," Romney said, referring to Panetta's comments.
Romney went on to criticize Obama. "His naÏvetÉ is putting in jeopardy the United States of America and our commitments to freedom," Romney said. "He is wrong."
Associated Press writers Patrick Condon in Eagan, Minn., and Shannon McCaffrey in Reno, Nev., contributed to this report.