EAGAN, MN -- On his campaign's flight to Minnesota this morning, Mitt Romney vigorously defended his economic message and engaged in a bit of damage control when asked by a reporter to explain his comment on CNN that he is "not concerned about the very poor."
"No no no no. No no. You've got to take the whole sentence, all right, as opposed to saying, and then change it just a little bit, because then it sounds very different. I've said throughout the campaign my focus, my concern, my energy is gonna be devoted to helping middle income people, all right? We have a safety net for the poor in, and if there are holes in it, I will work to repair that. And if there are people that are falling through the cracks I want to fix that," Romney said. "Wealthy people are doing fine. But my focus in the campaign is on middle income people. Of course I'm concerned about all Americans -- poor, wealthy, middle class, but the focus of my effort will be on middle income families who I think have been most hurt by the Obama economy."
On CNN this morning, Romney gave a shorter version of that response, upon which both Republican and Democrats quickly seized, looking to paint the Republican frontrunner as uncaring and out of touch. (Rick Tyler, a spokesman for a pro-Gingrich super PAC tweeted about the quote.)
“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it," Romney told CNN's Soledad O'Brien. "I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”
The line, problematic in soundbite form, is by no means new to Romney's stump speech or interview talking points. Romney frequently discusses the need to help the middle class rebound from the effects of the recession as a primary motivating factor for his campaign.
Romney's also spoken in the past about his concern for the impoverished.
"I'm concerned about the poor in this country. We have to make sure the safety net is strong and able to help those who can't help themselves," Romney said in South Carolina. "I'm not terribly worried about the very wealthiest in our society, they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the vast middle class of our nation, the 90 percent of Americans, the 95 percent of Americans who are having tough times."
On the plane this morning, Romney also conceded that he did see holes in the safety net that would need fixing.
"Oh I'm sure there are. I'm sure there are places where people fall between the cracks. And finding those places is one of the things that is the responsibility of government. We do have a very ample safety net in America, with Medicaid, housing vouchers, food stamps, earned income tax credit. We have a number of ways of helping the poor," Romney said. "And yet my focus and the area that I think is the greatest challenge that the country faces right now is not, is not to focus our effort on how we help the poor as much as to focus our effort on how to help the middle class in America, and get more people in the middle class and get people out of being poor and becoming middle income."