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Romney: Secretly recorded remarks 'not elegantly stated'

 

COSTA MESA, Calif. — Mitt Romney said Monday evening that his comments about voters who don't pay income taxes were "not elegantly stated," but did not distance himself from the substance of his surreptitiously recorded remarks at a closed-door fundraiser in May.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney defended his unguarded comments, secretly recorded at a private fundraising event in May and provided to the liberal magazine Mother Jones, that shows him speaking frankly about Obama's supporters. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.

The Republican presidential nominee hastily arranged a press conference to do damage control related to comments he made at a private fundraiser, which were secretly recorded and first brought to light by the liberal magazine Mother Jones.

"Of course individuals are going to take responsibility for their life, and my campaign is about helping people take more responsibility and becoming employed again — particularly those who don't have work," Romney said at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif.

At the fundraiser, held at the home of a supporter in Florida, Romney was captured responding to a questioner who asked what he would do to ensure Americans take care of themselves.

A surreptitious recording of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking at a private fundraiser raised questions as to whether or not Romney was saying what he believed or what he thought the audience wanted to hear. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what," Romney said.

Romney added: "My job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5-10 percent of people who are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not."

Tonight Romney argued that those comments showcased the extent of the differences between himself and President Barack Obama on the role of government in American lives, and sought to link them to his regular stump speech remarks about what he calls the democratic vision for an "entitlement society."

"This is, of course, something I talk about a good deal in rallies and speeches and so forth, which is the president and I have very different approaches to the future of America and what it takes to ignite our economy and put people back to work," Romney said. "The president believes in what I’ve described as a government centered society where government plays a larger and larger role, provides for more and more of the needs of individuals and I happen to believe instead in a free enterprise, free individual society where people pursuing their dreams are able to employ one another, build enterprises, build the strongest economy in the world."

VIDEO: David Corn of Mother Jones discusses the Romney recording

But when he was asked whether he was distancing himself from his comments on tape, and whether he worried that he had offended a number of Americans, Romney suggested that Obama's message on taxes is, in fact, "attractive" to Americans who aren't paying any taxes, "and therefore, I'm not likely to draw them into my campaign as effectively as those who are in the middle."

Today's firestorm over the leaked fundraiser comments marked the second time Romney's overheard remarks at a finance event have generated national headlines. In April, he told a group of donors in Florida he would consider eliminating the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and dramatically reshaping the Department of Education (among other details not regularly shared on the campaign trail).

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney comments on the controversial video of him speaking at a private fundraiser.

Tonight, the GOP nominee denied that he delivers two separate messages to his fundraisers and the American people at large, saying most of what he says in his remarks at finance events is the same as his stump speech. But Romney acknowledged that, in question and answer sessions, donors like to ask process questions about the campaign — issues in which Romney said Monday evening that Americans have little interest, but that donors like to have answered by the candidate.

Under increasing scrutiny, Romney campaign turns to details

"At a fundraiser you have people say governor how are you going to win this? And so I respond well, the president has his group I have my group. I want to keep my team strong and motivated and I want to get those people in the middle, that’s something which fundraising people who are parting with their monies are very interested in knowing can you win or not and that’s what this was addressing," Romney said.

Romney's comments quickly developed into more of a story after the release of the video, prompting an attack from President Barack Obama's campaign manager late Monday afternoon. 

"It's shocking that a candidate for President of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people view themselves as ‘victims,’ entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take ‘personal responsibility’ for their lives," said Jim Messina, the president's campaign manager. "It’s hard to serve as president for all Americans when you’ve disdainfully written off half the nation.”

The Romney campaign tried to act quickly to deal with the fallout from the potentially damaging story, releasing a statement early evening from communications director Gail Gitcho looking to add context to the former Bain Capital executive's remarks. 

RELATED: Romney: Senior staffers 'work extraordinarily well together'

But for the Republican's campaign, the emerging firestorm associated with these recordings couldn't have come at a worse time. 

A series of polls conducted in the week following the back-to-back party conventions found that Obama had strengthened his advantage over Romney. These polls and Romney's attack on the president's handling of a siege on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya prompted a new round of open grousing from within the GOP about the state of the Romney campaign. 

On top of that, POLITICO reported Sunday about infighting and blurry lines of authority within the Romney campaign — an ominous sign, given that this sort of finger-pointing is usually more characteristic of losing campaigns. 

Romney himself addressed those reports, telling Telemundo this afternoon that his "senior campaign people work extraordinarily well together."

The Republican's campaign also tried to regroup with a new messaging effort they said would add detail to Romney's existing proposals, an initiative which may well be consumed by the uproar associated with the fundraiser video.

Romney said he would "certainly appreciate" if the leaker — whose identity isn't publicly known — would release the entire tape to provide more context for his remarks.

The Romney campaign began to allow reporters to cover some of their finance events in early May. Typically, a small group of reporters is allowed to sit in for the candidate's formal remarks on behalf of all their colleagues, then file a report for the pool. Events where Romney does not give formal remarks, or where he speaks at a private home or business are exempted from this coverage, so many of Romney's finance events happen far away from the eyes of the press.

Coincidentally, the Romney campaign told reporters just this morning, they would begin to allow video and news photo coverage of their large finances events as well — including planned events in Utah and Dallas.

NBCNews.com's Michael O'Brien contributed to this report.