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Republicans Race To Reframe Romney Comments As Campaign Opportunity

Mitt Romney speaks at a fundraiser in Dallas on Tuesday.
Nicholas Kamm
AFP/Getty Images
Mitt Romney speaks at a fundraiser in Dallas on Tuesday.

Republicans scrambling to turn Mitt Romney's videotaped aspersions cast on 47 percent of Americans into a campaign opportunity are hoping for a "Chick-fil-A moment."

At least that's the battle cry of conservative blogger Erick Erickson, among a small but increasingly vocal cadre of Republicans urging the GOP presidential candidate to step up and better define and defend the surreptitiously taped comments about government dependency he made at a May fundraising dinner.

The Chick-fil-A moment reference?

Erickson says at his RedState blog that he believes there are many potential voters who would embrace Romney's larger point about government entitlements. And that they'd emerge like the thousands who turned out recently to support the anti-same sex marriage owner of the chicken restaurant after gay rights activists called for a boycott.

"I think [Romney] needs to now own this statement, articulate it better than he did at that dinner, and actually now have a substantive policy on entitlement reform," Erickson told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Wednesday.

"We always lament that politicians are too guarded, don't say what they mean and don't speak honestly," Erickson said. "Here, he was, and now we're beating him up for it."

Romney has been savaged by Democrats, and some members of his own party, after a videotape was disseminated on the website of Mother Jones magazine showing him referring to 47 percent of Americans as tax deadbeats who believe they are "victims" entitled to government-provided health care, food, housing and "you name it."

In the wake of the widespread airing of his secretly taped comments, which came after a series of Romney stumbles over the previous week, Democrats pounced and many Republicans despaired — not only at the substance of Romney's comments but also at the timing.

Romney has publicly referred to his comments as "not elegantly stated" and "off the cuff," but has not backed down on his central premise about government dependence.

With fresh polls continuing to show Romney's race against President Obama close (though no major surveys have been conducted post-video dissemination), some Republicans are urging an end to the party freak-out and encouraging GOP partisans to embrace Romney's reworded narrative.

And here it is, under the unapologetic candidate's name, in Wednesday's edition of USAToday:

"We're experiencing the worst recovery since the Great Depression. Unemployment has been above 8 percent for 43 straight months; 47 million Americans are on food stamps. Nearly one in six Americans now live in poverty. Under President Obama, we have a stagnant economy that fostered government dependency. My policies will create a growing economy that fosters upward mobility."

Along with Romney's embrace of the "food stamp nation" argument, the Republican National Committee has been promoting a 1998 video of Obama, then an Illinois state senator, talking about his support for "redistribution" of wealth to "make sure everybody has a shot." The RNC also has a new ad highlighting the "redistribution" theme.

The ad also includes a clip of Obama's now infamous "you didn't build that" statement about how government and communities help businesses prosper, followed by this snippet of Romney's convention speech: "In America, we celebrate success — we don't apologize for success."

And CNN reports that the Romney superPAC "Restore Our Future" is going up with an ad in Wisconsin and Michigan that seeks to refocus debate on the economy. While the national unemployment rate in August was 8.1 percent, the new ad claims the "real" unemployment rate is nearly 19 percent — a figure it gets by extrapolating from unemployment rate numbers and statistics about workers who have stopped looking for jobs.

A dueling Obama "Priorities USA Action" superPAC ad that will run in six swing states stays focused on Romney's video comments, contrasting an image of the Florida mansion where the fundraiser occurred with a simple frame house. "Victims?" the voiceover says, "beyond these doors, middle-class families struggle. ... Mitt Romney will never convince us he's on our side."

The conservative Heritage Foundation on Wednesday also sought to reframe Romney's stumble, turning out an analysis that asserts that the candidate's characterization of 47 percent of Americans as government-dependent and paying no taxes holds statistical water.

"While these groups are not necessarily one in the same," Heritage says, "there is overlap between the two, and the percentages on government dependency and nontaxpaying are very similar."

Despite the reframing flurry, influential Republican voices remain unconvinced that the party can spin this dross into gold.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan on Wednesday suggested that the Romney campaign needs an "intervention." And syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker says that "cyborg" Romney needs to show he understands that "the problems he's solving actually involve people."

Again, on NPR's Morning Edition, Erick Erickson defended Romney's comments about the 47 percent as an unfortunate conflation of two different groups but a politically realistic assertion.

There are, Erickson said, 47 percent of people in the nation who will vote for Obama and 47 percent who will vote for Romney.

"Mitt Romney was trying to say that he's got to focus on the people in between, in the gap, to get to them," he said. "The problem was he pivoted immediately and started talking about how there's also 47 percent of people in the nation who don't pay income tax."

"I really don't think he intended to merge them together," Erickson said. "But I don't think it hurts him as much as a lot of people say."

A Chick-fil-A moment? That will be up to those voters in the "47 percent" that Romney needs. And it's too early to tell whether they will be convinced by Erickson's argument that Romney conflated and confounded, and didn't mean exactly — or at least didn't exactly mean — what he said.

And about Chick-fil-A: On Wednesday it was revealed that the restaurant chain will no longer give money to anti-gay rights organizations.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.

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