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 that 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."
"In circumstances like that, there are efforts made, sometimes very desperate efforts made to change the subject," Carney said.
Some Republicans running for Congress were quick to distance themselves from Romney's remarks, including Sen. Scott Brown, locked in a tight race for re-election in Massachusetts. "There's a lot of good people out there they're not out there saying, 'Oh boy, I want to be on public assistance.' They're out there struggling to pay the bills and provide for their families."
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."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he doesn't think voters will turn away from Romney "based on an analysis, ill-conceived analysis at a fundraiser." But the candidate needs to campaign harder in swing states to win the election.
"This is our election to lose," Graham said. "There's a reason no president has ever been elected with economic numbers like this. If Obama wins, he'll be rewriting political history."
Amid the controversy, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina attended Senate Democrats' weekly lunch in the Capitol to update lawmakers on the state of the presidential race.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid took to the Senate floor earlier in the day to question whether Romney himself could be one of the Americans who pay no federal income tax. Reid has charged before that Romney hasn't paid taxes some years, but the senator hasn't backed up the claim with evidence, and Romney has insisted that's not true. "We'll never know, since he refuses to release tax returns from the years before he was running for president," Reid said.
"So who are those Americans Mitt Romney disdains as 'victims' and 'those people?'" said Reid, D-Nev., in a prepared speech. "They're not avoiding their tax bills using Cayman Island tax shelters or Swiss bank accounts like Mitt Romney."
A super political action committee supporting Obama was more pointed in the first television advertisement using Romney's words, released Wednesday morning and scheduled to run in battlegrounds Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The ad includes video of Romney saying, "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility." An announcer interjects, "And Mitt Romney will never convince us he's on our side."
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.
Obama planned a rare full day at the White House Wednesday, including a private meeting with Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In an effort to promote good news on the economy, the administration released a progress report showing it had taken steps to increase the number of foreign visitors to the U.S. The report says wait times for visas in countries such as China and Brazil have decreased sharply, while the number of "trusted travelers" has grown to 1.5 million, up from 1.2 million last year. Frequent travelers and those who are not considered a security risk can make it through airport checkpoints and other border entries more quickly.
International tourists spent $13.7 billion in the United States in July, up 3 percent from July 2011, the report said. Canada and Mexico remain the two top sources of international visitors.
The report said the State Department and Homeland Security are working with industry leaders such as Disney and American Express to attract more international visitors. Disney, for instance, has agreed to donate experts to evaluate U.S. consulates in Brazil and China and suggest ways to reduce lines and make other improvements.
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Julie Pace, Kevin Freking, Donna Cassata and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.