ATLANTA (AP) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told donors Wednesday that he cares about the poor and middle class as he tried to stem criticism and address concern from within his own party over secretly-recorded comments that he doesn't need to worry about the half of the country that doesn't pay federal income taxes.
The White House accused Romney of desperately trying to change the subject from an unauthorized video as its political allies continued to drum up heat over the remarks. The video was a welcome change of subject for Democrats from the campaign's long-running debate over the lackluster economy during Obama's presidency.
Both sides were hoping to break out of their dead heat, with the video upending the debate in the campaign seven weeks to Election Day. In the recording made at a private fundraiser in May, Romney said nearly half of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes believe they are victims and entitled to a range of government support and as a candidate, he doesn't feel a need to worry about them.
Romney tried to correct any impression that he isn't concerned with average Americans during an afternoon fundraiser in Atlanta attended by Gov. Nathan Deal and other state GOP leaders. "The question of this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class," Romney said. "I do. He does. The question is who can help the poor and the middle class. I can. He can't."
Romney stood by his view of what the government's role should be in Americans' lives.
America "does not work by a government saying, become dependent on government, become dependent upon redistribution," Romney told 900 donors who paid as much as $50,000 to attend. "That will kill the American entrepreneurship that's lifted our economy over the years."
Romney pointed out a video of Obama made in 1998 when the then state senator said he believes in redistribution, "at least to a certain level to make sure everybody's got a shot."
White House spokesman Jay Carney suggested Romney's efforts to push the 14-year-old video were the work of a candidate having "a very bad day or a very bad week."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she can't explain why Romney would have worded his comments the way he did when he cares about seniors, students and veterans.
"Look, it clearly isn't helpful and it's surprising that a disciplined candidate would make those kind of comments," she said. But she said they were made a long time ago "and clearly were held to release at a critical time, so there's manipulation on the other side, too. But they certainly aren't helpful."
With early and absentee voting beginning in a number of states, both sides hoped to lock in votes long before Election Day. Romney scheduled two appearances in Miami Wednesday, including a candidate forum with the Spanish-language TV network Univision.