As Mitt Romney arrived in Florida and President Barack Obama prepared for a visit to Tampa, state Democrats orchestrated a major publicity effort blasting Romney's controversial "47 percent" comments.
They released two ads and statements from every Florida Democratic Congress member, and held a statewide series of news conferences and roundtable discussions with senior citizens, students and others to flay Romney over the statements.
But far from backing down, Florida Republicans, led by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, stood behind the comments Wednesday, saying, in essence, that Romney's remarks may have been poorly stated but summed up the thrust of the campaign.
They seized on 14-year-old comments by Obama, then an Illinois state senator, recorded in a 1998 speech at Loyola University. Obama said then he believed government should "facilitate some (wealth) redistribution ... at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot."
In a conference call including Rubio on Wednesday, national Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said Obama's comments prove "his agenda is an agenda of dependency, not of opportunity."
Rubio said the distinction is "at the heart of what this election is about ... that's what it's all about."
U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers, GOP Senate nominee, also chimed in backing Romney: "Clearly Mitt Romney was discussing our economic system, which because of excessive government interference often hurts the very people it's meant to help and creates a tax system that is wildly disproportional across our economy."
Romney has said his comments were "off the cuff" and "not elegantly stated."
But Democrats said the comments signaled rejection of a large section of the American population, including retirees on Social Security and Medicare, students who receive federal college aid, military retirees, the disabled and others who don't have enough income to pay income tax but receive benefits from some federal program.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, including a military retiree and a college student who have no income-tax liability, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa called the Romney comments "shocking."
She added that such individuals "pay a significant percentage of their income in taxes ... federal payroll taxes, property taxes, sales taxes or other state and local taxes. They often pay an even higher share of their income in these taxes than wealthier families, like Mitt Romney's."
"It's hard to serve as a president of all Americans when you fail the character test and write off and insult half the country that you want to lead."
Romney's remarks were in a secretly recorded speech he gave to a fundraiser in Boca Raton in May.
He said 47 percent of the population, the percentage of potential taxpayers estimated to pay no income tax, "are dependent upon government," "believe that they are victims," and "believe that government has a responsibility to care for them."
"I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility ... And they will vote for this president no matter what," he said.
In response, Obama backers Wednesday launched two ads in Florida. One, by Priorities USA, a super PAC backing Obama, cited the Romney quotes, saying, Romney "will never convince us he's on our side."
MoveOn.org released a Spanish-language ad to run in Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando and the Tampa area, capitalizing on another part of the same speech, in which Romney said his father was born in Mexico, and added, "had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot at winning this ... I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino."
In the ad, a Latino woman responds, "You've pledged to kill the Dream Act, you'd enable the police harassment of Latinos in Arizona, and your party is trying to suppress Latino votes. But you joke that you wanna be one so you can win? We're not laughing, Gov. Romney."
A MoveOn spokesman wouldn't provide details of how large the ad buy is.
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, released statements by Democratic Florida Congress members blasting the comments, plus a web video with "man on the street" reactions.
"Mitt Romney showed his true colors -- and they aren't pretty," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who's also national Democratic Party chairman.
The series of news conferences and round-table discussions culminates today in an event at Obama for American headquarters in Tampa.
After a fundraiser in Coral Gables Wednesday night, Romney planned a fundraiser and rally in Sarasota on Thursday, followed by an evening fundraiser in Palm Beach.
Thursday night, Obama will visit Tampa for a fundraiser at a private home, but isn't expected to make any public appearances.
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