Remember a few days ago when President Obama was enjoying a postconvention bump in the polls, when pundits were accusing Mitt Romney of politicizing the killing of a U.S. ambassador in Libya, and when Politico published a devastating piece depicting a Romney campaign in disarray and seeking a new direction?
Or as Romney might call them . . . the good ol' days.
In the most tumultuous 24 hours of the 2012 race for the White House since Romney emerged as the GOP candidate, the ex-Massachusetts governor and his cohorts were scrambling Tuesday to limit the damage from a videotape in which he's captured telling wealthy donors that Obama voters are "victims" -- 47 percent of Americans who are "dependent" on government.
Critics -- ranging from an Obama campaign barely able to hide its glee to a goodly number of Republicans, including two GOP senators -- seized on the remarks that were secretly videotaped in the spring as showing Romney to be divisive, arrogant and an out-of-touch elitist who insulted half the nation, including senior citizens and soldiers. And those were some of the kinder, gentler reactions.
With polls already giving Obama a slight advantage -- Real Clear Politics says its national polling average shows the Democratic incumbent up by nearly 3 points, or 48.4 percent to 45.5 percent for surveys taken before the video went viral -- the newest brouhaha raises this question with the election seven weeks away:
Can the Romney campaign be saved?
Yes, say experts, but it won't be easy.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia historian and presidential pundit, said that as much as 95 percent of the electorate is so locked into its viewpoint that virtually no individual comment, or gaffe, will change very many votes. He said most political scientists believe that the sliver of the populace that is still persuadable at this late date is 5 percent or less, and some of these are so apathetic they may not even vote.
"I don't think it changes things," Sabato said. "But it does make it more difficult for Romney to appeal to whomever the swing voters are."
Indeed, conservative partisans seemed divided on whether Tuesday was a day to change the subject -- the right-wing pacesetting website the Drudge Report sought to play up a comment from Obama about income redistribution from back in 1998 -- or whether Romney should full-throatedly embrace an Ayn Randian critique of the "takers" in society.
"This could be the opportunity for Romney and for that campaign to finally take the gloves off and take the fear off and just start explaining conservatism," right-wing radio icon Rush Limbaugh told his large audience Tuesday. "Start explaining liberty to people and what it means, and explain that they don't have to be in that 47 percent."
Romney appeared briefly, looking uncharacteristically tousled, late Monday night to stand behind his comments -- other than that they were "inelegantly stated" -- and he continued to double-down on Tuesday.
"I do believe we should have enough jobs and enough take-home pay to allow people to pay taxes," Romney told the Fox News Channel, adding an un-Reaganesque "I think people would like to be paying taxes."
There was a local connection to the campaign blowup. The surreptitiously filmed tape was shot on May 17 at a $50,000-a-head fundraiser at the Florida mansion of hedge-fund owner Marc Leder, a 1983 Wharton graduate who became a part-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers last year. The footage actually bounced around the Internet for weeks before Mother Jones journalist David Corn -- with the assistance of a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter -- confirmed its authenticity.
There was other controversy in the remarks of a candidate who believed he was speaking privately, including Romney's statement that Palestinians "have no interest" in peace and his arguably bizarre suggestion that he'd have a better chance of capturing the White House if he were Latino. But the biggest controversy was stirred by this:
"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."
Of course, as multiple pundits pointed out, Americans not paying income taxes -- actually 46 percent in 2011 -- a) for the most part still pay federal payroll taxes and other levies and b) include active-duty combat troops, seniors collecting Social Security and the disabled, as well as working-class families struggling to find work and get by. These folks do not generally describe themselves as "victims."
One could argue that some unemployed or underemployed Americans are victims -- of the type of hedge-fund capitalism that includes "offshoring" U.S. factory jobs, as championed by the Romney-founded Bain Capital, or the business practices of Leder's Sun Capital, which is fighting government accusations that it bankrupted Friendly's ice-cream restaurants in order to strip longtime workers of their pension benefit.
What may be most problematic for Romney is the backlash from someone like center-right columnist David Brooks in the New York Times, who wrote that the candidate's comment "suggests that he really doesn't know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq War veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?"
On the other hand, there's a different 47 percent that's probably totally on board with Romney -- in an America so divided that it not only can't come together on solving problems, but it can't even agree on what the problems are, or what to call them.
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