A day that was supposed to see Mitt Romney reboot his faltering presidential campaign ended in disarray last night, after he was caught telling a room full of wealthy donors “my job is not to worry” about attempting to appeal to poor people.
Hidden camera footage of the event, said to be a dinner attended by 30 of the Republican candidate's biggest fundraisers, saw him dismiss 47 per cent of Americans as freeloaders who "pay no income tax" and behave like "victims".
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Speaking in what appeared to be a hotel function room, Romney claimed that the overwhelming majority of voters who support Barack Obama's do so because they are "dependent" on government and "believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing".
"There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the President no matter what, all right?" he said. "There are 47 per cent who are with him, who are dependant 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."
"They will vote for this President no matter what," he continued. "These are people who pay no income tax... My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
The remarks are remarkable since Mr Romney gives few interviews and is usually highly scripted. At one point, he joked that he'd have more chance of winning the election if his father had been born in Mexico. At another, he spoke of being born "with a silver spoon". In a third, he admitted that the campaign would use his wife Ann "sparingly, so people don't get tired of her".
After being shared on the left-leaning Mother Jones website, videos of the event rapidly went viral last night. Mr Romney's spokesman did not initially comment, but Obama's campaign pounced on them as further evidence of Mr Romney's elitism.
"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,' entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take 'personal responsibility' for their lives," they said. "It's hard to serve as President for all Americans when you've disdainfully written off half the nation."
It was too early to say how the comments will effect voter sentiment. But the portion of Americans who do not pay income tax includes many elderly voters, most students, and the vast majority of the recently unemployed. They pay plenty of other taxes, and may now think twice about supporting a candidate who dubs them "freeloaders".
The snowballing scandal capped a day that had begun with Mr Romney insisting that there will be no changes to his inner circle, despite weeks of flat-lining poll numbers.
Staff had promised a "reboot" of his campaign, which until now has focused on attacking Mr Obama. Beginning with a speech to Hispanic business leaders in Los Angeles, aides promised that he would outline specific policy objectives that would define his first term in office.
Behind the scenes, that narrative was already muddied, however by talk of discord among his senior strategists. Late on Sunday, the Politico website published a gossip-filled exposé of alleged disarray within the Romney camp, in which "aides, advisers and friends" blamed a senior aide, Stuart Stevens, for their recent loss of momentum.
The Politico piece had alleged that Stevens was responsible for making a series of late changes to Mr Romney's underwhelming speech to the Republican National Convention. He was also blamed for failing to vet Clint Eastwood's bizarre performance at the event, where the 82-year-old actor held a rambling conversation with an empty chair.
"As the mishaps have piled up, [Stuart] Stevens has taken the brunt of the blame for an unwieldy campaign structure that, as the joke goes among frustrated Republicans, badly needs a consultant from Bain & Co to straighten it out," it read.
Stuart Stevens: Romney's 'mad professor'
Warm, approachable and slightly eccentric, Stuart Stevens presides over Mitt Romney's campaign with what friends and critics have described as a "mad professor aura". The 58-year-old has a colourful background, having skied to the North Pole and consulted on such Hollywood films as The Ides of March. Despite reportedly being Mr Romney's third choice as chief strategist, he has unprecedented responsibility, combining the role with that of chief ad-maker and chief speech-writer.