(Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney struggled on Tuesday to steady his reeling White House campaign after a secretly recorded video showed him dismissing President Barack Obama's supporters - almost half the country's voters - as victims who are too dependent on government.
The video from a closed-door fundraiser in Florida in May sparked a new wave of criticism of Romney's gaffe-plagued presidential bid and raised questions about his ability to come from behind in the polls and win the November 6 election.
In the clip, the first portion of which was published on Monday by the liberal Mother Jones magazine, Romney tells donors that 47 percent of Americans will back Obama no matter what and "my job is not to worry about those people."
He said they did not pay income taxes and were people "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them."
Obama criticized Romney for writing off a big segment of the American electorate.
"One of the things I've learned as president is you represent the entire country," Obama said on CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman" in New York. "My expectation is if you want to be president, you've got to work for everybody, not just for some."
The video was shot at the luxurious Boca Raton, Florida, home of Marc Leder, a private equity executive who hosted the $50,000-per-person fundraiser. The camera appears to be hidden on a marble-topped sideboard and shows Romney addressing more than half a dozen people who are sitting eating. Waiters, some wearing white gloves, serve the guests.
Romney also told the donors that Palestinians had no interest in pursuing a peace agreement with Israel and achieving a separate Palestinian state would not be possible.
"I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there's just no way," Romney said.
The video unleashed a new wave of criticism from some Republicans who were already frustrated by Romney's failure to capitalize politically on a struggling economy and a high 8.1 unemployment rate.
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, called Romney's comments "stupid and arrogant." David Brooks, a self-described "moderate conservative" columnist in The New York Times, said Romney did not appear to understand American culture.
"It's what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney," Brooks wrote. "He's running a depressingly inept presidential campaign."
Two Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate in Democratic-leaning states, Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts, distanced themselves from Romney's comments.
McMahon said she disagreed with Romney and "the vast majority of those who rely on government are not in that situation because they want to be." Brown said in an email to The Hill newspaper that Romney's views did not reflect "the way I view the world."
The video capped a difficult two weeks for Romney, who has fallen slightly behind Obama in opinion polls, taken heavy criticism for a hasty attack on the president during assaults on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Egypt and Libya and faced damaging news reports about infighting in his campaign team.
It also reinforced criticism that the millionaire former head of the private equity firm Bain Capital is out of touch with average Americans, a theme the Obama campaign has hammered home all summer through advertisements.
Romney did not back away from the remarks at a Monday night news conference in California, where he said they were "not elegantly stated," or again on Tuesday in an interview with Fox News.
Romney cited a 1998 video of Obama discussing his belief in wealth distribution "at a certain level to make sure everybody's got a shot." Romney said he and Obama had very different views of America.
"I think a society based upon a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money - that's the wrong course for America," Romney said on Fox.
In the video, Romney also said in response to an audience question that he would try to take political advantage of a foreign crisis similar to the Iran hostage episode that damaged President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
"I mean, if something of that nature presents itself, I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity," he said.
Democrats leaped at the chance to criticize Romney for the comments and launched a new ad and fund-raising campaign focused on them. On the West Bank, Palestinians said Romney was wrong to accuse them of not seeking peace.
"No one stands to gain more from peace with Israel than Palestinians and no one stands to lose more in the absence of peace than Palestinians," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters. "Only those who want to maintain the Israeli occupation will claim the Palestinians are not interested in peace."
The video controversy overshadowed an effort by Romney's campaign to offer more economic policy specifics and air new television ads to address rising worries from Republicans about the direction of his campaign.
'STILL FOCUSED ON ECONOMY'
But Romney adviser Kevin Madden said the firestorm over the video would not distract from the campaign's economic focus.
"I still think this is an election that's focused on the economy, it's focused on the direction of the country, and I think the voters right now who have yet to make up their mind are still viewing it through the lens of that," Madden said.
A short version of the video was spotted on YouTube in August by James Carter IV, the grandson of the former Democratic president. The self-styled opposition researcher tracked down and convinced the person who recorded the video to hand over the full version to David Corn, a journalist with Mother Jones.
"James, this is extraordinary. Congratulations! Papa," Jimmy Carter told his grandson in an email on Tuesday, according to NBC News.
Some Republicans rallied to Romney's defense. Former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, a Romney adviser, said the Obama campaign was trying to wage class warfare. Donald Trump urged Romney not to apologize and told NBC's "Today" show that "Republicans have to get tougher or they are going to lose this campaign."
The video comes seven weeks before the election and just more than two weeks before the first presidential debate on October 3, which may be Romney's best chance to change the direction of the White House race.
Romney regained some ground on Obama in a Reuters/Ipsos online poll on Tuesday, trailing by 4 percentage points, 47 percent to 43 percent. Romney had trailed by 5 points on Monday. The national Real Clear Politics average of polls gave Obama a 2.9-point lead over Romney.
Romney's comments about the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay taxes and are dependent on government were not a new theme for Republicans, and it was a largely accurate figure.
About 46 percent of U.S. households paid no federal income tax in 2011, according to the bipartisan Tax Policy Center, although almost two-thirds of those paid an employment tax to support the Social Security and Medicare programs.
In most cases, it is elderly and poor households that do not pay federal income tax, the center said. About half of those who pay no tax are allowed to do so because their incomes are too low.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Steve Holland in Utah and Jihan Abdalla in Ramallah; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)
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