MIAMI: Seeking to recover from his disparaging remarks about the half of the country that gets government benefits, Republican Mitt Romney said on Wednesday his presidential campaign was about helping the "100 percent" in America.
In a fundraising speech in Atlanta and a television interview in Miami, Romney said he would do a better job of helping the poor than President Barack Obama. Advisers said Romney would step up the pace of his campaigning as the tight presidential contest enters its final seven weeks.
"My campaign is about the 100 percent in America and I'm concerned about them," Romney said in an interview with the Spanish-language Univision network in Miami as he sought to control the damage from what appeared to be the worst two days of his campaign.
"I'm concerned about the fact that over the past four years life has become harder for Americans. More people have fallen into poverty, more people we just learned have had to go onto food stamps," he added.
Romney wants the November 6 election to be a referendum on Obama's handling of the weak U.S. economy, but self-inflicted wounds have sidetracked him this week. A secretly recorded video that surfaced on Monday suggested he was writing off Obama supporters as people dependent on government with no sense of personal responsibility.
Some 43 percent of registered voters thought less of Romney after seeing the video, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, while a mostly Republican 26 percent viewed him more favourably. Independent voters were more likely to say the video lowered their opinion of Romney.
Romney hopes to recover by framing the presidential election as a choice between big government and economic growth. At the Atlanta fundraiser, Romney said he wanted to spur job creation by encouraging private enterprise.
"The question in this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class. I do, he does," Romney said, jabbing the podium with his index finger and his voice rising with emotion.
"The question is who can help the poor and the middle class. I can, he can't and he's proven it in four years," he said.
MORE RALLIES PLANNED
Amid criticism Romney had not held enough campaign events, his advisers said he planned to hold more public rallies starting early next week and might sometimes hold up to three a day.
An official said visits to the battleground states of Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Florida were in the works as part of a stepped-up campaign schedule that reflected the growing intensity of the campaign.
Romney's events in Miami on Wednesday marked his first visit to a swing state since he was in Ohio last Friday in a week dominated by fundraising events.
In his Univision interview, Romney made comments that could be construed as moving toward the centre as he seeks the support of independent voters who may determine the outcome of the election.
He played down his support for "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants and avoided saying whether he would repeal an executive order Obama put in place this year that stopped the deportation of some people in the country illegally.
"I'm not in favour of a deportation, mass deportation effort, rounding up 12 million people and taking them out of the country. I believe people make their own choices as to whether they want to go home, I mean, by self-deportation," he said.
While still opposing gay marriage, he expressed support for domestic partnerships that include hospital visitation rights and "similar types of things being provided to those individuals."
Romney's campaign argues that Obama has presided over a stagnant economy and that this has forced more Americans to rely on food stamps and other government assistance.
The controversial video, recorded in May at a luxurious Florida home and released by the liberal magazine Mother Jones, shows Romney telling wealthy campaign donors that 47 percent of Americans would back Obama no matter what. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," he says.
The remarks fed into a perception that multimillionaire Romney has battled throughout the campaign: that he is insensitive to the struggles of less wealthy Americans. They drew condemnation from Democrats and an array of Republicans, including congressional candidates and conservative columnists.
Trying to deflect attention from the video, Republicans are pointing to a 1998 recording that surfaced this week of Obama discussing his belief in "a certain level" of wealth distribution.
"Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth," Romney's vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, said at a campaign event in Danville, Virginia.
Romney had hoped to spend the week fleshing out his plan to bolster the economy, until the video went viral on Monday and pushed the campaign into damage-control mode. It came on the heels of a Politico report about dysfunction in his campaign and a statement on strife in the Middle East that was widely criticized as unstatesmanlike.
Republicans worry that their presidential candidate may not be able to recover in the seven weeks before the election.
"There is a broad and growing feeling now, among Republicans, that this thing is slipping out of Romney's hands," Wall Street Journal editorial writer Peggy Noonan wrote in a blog post. "It's time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one."
Some Republicans worry that Romney may compromise their party's ability to win control of the Senate and hold on to the House of Representatives, and a growing chorus of Republican candidates and officeholders have repudiated the remarks.
A Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll showed Obama leading Romney 48 percent to 43 percent among likely voters. Among all registered voters, Obama led 49 percent to 38 percent.
Most other polls have yet to reflect fallout from Romney's comments, but they show that Romney already trailed Obama before the video's release this week.
A Pew Research Centre poll found that Obama was in a stronger position at this point in the race than any presidential candidate since 1996. Early voting is already under way in North Carolina and will begin in other states in coming weeks.
Romney already faces a more difficult path to victory as he can count on fewer sure wins than Obama among the 51 state contests that determine the outcome of the election. Across the handful of states that remain competitive, Obama holds an advantage of 48 percent to 46 percent, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll.