WASHINGTON - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney dismissed supporters of President Barack Obama - almost half of U.S. voters - as people who live off government handouts and do not "care for their lives," in a potentially damaging video.
The video, taken secretly at a fundraising event for the former private-equity executive, was the latest setback for a campaign struggling with low poll numbers and reports of infighting.
"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," Romney said in a hidden-camera video of remarks to potential donors earlier this year posted on Monday on left-wing Mother Jones magazine's website
It added to Romney's problems as he tried on Monday to retool his campaign message with more specifics on policies after reports of internal disarray.
He has slipped in polls in the last two weeks as the selection of running mate Paul Ryan and the Republican National Convention failed to make much of a mark with voters.
A Reuters/Ipsos survey on Monday taken over the previous four days showed Romney - often painted by rivals as an out-of-touch elitist - trailing Obama by five percentage points.
In the new video, Romney said he did not need to concern himself with Obama supporters.
"My job 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 to 10 percent in the center that are independents," he said to potential donors.
The tape brought back memories of controversial remarks that then-candidate Barack Obama made at a fundraiser during his 2008 campaign when he said that white rural voters "cling to guns or religion."
On Monday, the Obama campaign tried to take advantage of Romney's comments.
"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,'" Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, said in a statement.
"It's hard to serve as president for all Americans when you've disdainfully written off half the nation," he said.
Romney's campaign said the Republican is concerned about Americans who are poor and unemployed.
"Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy," Gail Gitcho, Romney's campaign communications director, said in a statement issued in response to a request for comment.
Obama supporters "pay no income tax"
Mother Jones did not say when or where the video was taken to protect the identity of the person who recorded it. It did say Romney's remarks had been made at some point after he clinched the Republican presidential nomination in April.
In the video, the former Massachusetts governor accused Obama supporters of paying no income taxes. "These are people who pay no income tax," he said. "Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax."
Romney himself has been criticized for not releasing more than two years' worth of tax returns.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus jumped to Romney's defense.
"I think that we are entering into a dependency society in this country, that if we don't break that up, I think that's going to be very hard for us to compete in the world," he told CNN. "I don't think the candidate's off message at all."
Romney also discussed with donors his strategy for appealing to undecided or independent voters by stressing disappointment with Obama's policies.
"Those people that we have to get, they want to believe they did the right thing, but he just wasn't up to the task. They love the phrase that he's 'Over his head,'" Romney said in the video.