Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, pauses for applause while speaking at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012.
Being raised in the middle class is not a guarantee that you'll have that same status as an adult. With all the economic turmoil in the past four years, there's good reason to think that downward mobility is more severe. —Erin Currier

Within hours of his victory in the Florida primaries, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney found himself on the rocks Wednesday for saying he isn't worried about America's poorest.

"I'm not concerned about the very poor," he told CNN's Soledad O'Brien in a morning interview. "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."

While poor Americans benefit from programs like Medicaid and food stamps, middle class Americans "need someone that can help get this economy going for them," he said.

President Barack Obama's campaign manager responded to the comment with a snarky tweet: "So much for 'we're all in this together'"

Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Newt Gingrich, compared Romney to John Kerry.

"That comment, like so many others by Romney, is not just odd but out of touch," she told National Review Online. "He does not share a connective tissue with the average American."

Forty-six percent of Americans don't believe Romney, whose net worth is estimated at about $200 million, understands the problems of average citizens, according to a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll published Tuesday. But Obama doesn't fare much better with the public and Newt Gingrich fares worse. Forty percent of Americans believe Obama's out of touch and 49 percent believe Gingrich doesn't empathize.

In response to criticism, Romney, whose campaign frantically leapt into damage-control mode, insisted people had misunderstood his intent.

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no," he told reporters on his campaign plane when asked about the comment.

If social programs aren't adequately caring for America's poor, he said, "I want to fix that. But my focus in the campaign is on middle-income people."

It's these people, he said, who have suffered the most during Obama's presidency.

America's middle class is suffering — the statistics back Romney up on that.

One out of three Americans who were raised middle class have dropped down the economic ladder as adults, according to recent research from The Pew Charitable Trusts. During the recession, the share of working families who are low income steadily climbed to 31.2 percent, according to a new analysis by The Working Poor Families Project and the Population Reference Bureau.

"Being raised in the middle class is not a guarantee that you'll have that same status as an adult," Erin Currier, project manager at Pew's Economic Mobility Project, told CNNMoney. "With all the economic turmoil in the past four years, there's good reason to think that downward mobility is more severe."

Still, John McCormack at The Weekly Standard pointed out, "A candidate can say he's 'focused' on the middle class without saying he's 'not concerned' about the very poor, just as a candidate can say he's 'focused' on the economy without saying he's 'not concerned' about national security."

Many argued Romney's ill-articulated point was just one in a long string of seemingly callous comments.

"The latest remarks about the poor play into the narrative that his critics like to draw 'that of an out-of-touch capitalist,'" wrote Ashley Parker at The New York Times.

But others argued there's more to Romney than meets the eye.

In a new biography, Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman told the story about how Romney picked up the bill for milk at a Boston homeless shelter.

The shelter director wasn't sure exactly how Romney had done it, Kranish and Scott wrote, "But now, instead of paying for thousands of pints a day, the shelter was paying for just five hundred. And it wasn't just some political stratagem. "It wasn't a short-term 'Let me stroke you a check,' he said. "It happened not once, not twice, but for a long period of time.'"

Romney is "personally very generous," wrote Philip Klein, an editorial writer at The Washington Examiner. Romney's charity is "quiet." He has a reputation for helping neighbors, fellow church members and others with not only money, but personal time.

"If the media is going to criticize Romney for the seeming callousness of his statements, they should dig a bit deeper and explore his magnanimous side," he wrote. "This duality also happens to be a better, more complex, story."