WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's campaign allies continued to push out an unauthorized video of rival Mitt Romney dismissing the half of Americans who don't pay income taxes, while the Republican nominee tried to turn the campaign disruption into a debate over the role of government in family finances.
"My course for the American economy will encourage private investment and personal freedom," Romney wrote in an op-ed essay in Wednesday's USA Today. "Instead of creating a web of dependency, I will pursue policies that grow our economy and lift Americans out of poverty."
It remains to be seen whether Romney's remarks at a private fundraiser, captured on hidden camera, would shake loose a dead heat that's persisted in the presidential campaign for months. An Associated Press-GfK poll out Wednesday shows an improvement in Obama's job approval rating and confidence in the country's direction, but the race is a dead heat among those most likely to vote.
Romney's USA Today essay avoided mention of the claim he makes on the video that nearly half of Americans believe they are victims and entitled to a range of government support and that as a candidate, he doesn't feel a need to worry about them. His running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, told KRNV-TV in Reno, Nev., that Romney "was obviously inarticulate in making this point" that government dependency and economic stagnation have risen under Obama.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid took to the Senate floor Wednesday to question whether Romney himself could be one of the Americans who pay no federal income tax. Reid has charged before that Romney hasn't paid taxes some years, but the senator hasn't backed up the claim with evidence, and Romney has insisted that's not true. "We'll never know, since he refuses to release tax returns from the years before he was running for president," Reid said.
"So who are those Americans Mitt Romney disdains as 'victims' and 'those people?'" said Reid, D-Nev., in a prepared speech. "They're not avoiding their tax bills using Cayman Island tax shelters or Swiss bank accounts like Mitt Romney."
Obama, appearing Tuesday on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman," rejected the notion that many Americans feel they are victims. "One thing I've learned as president is that you represent the entire country," he said.
A super political action committee supporting Obama was more pointed in the first television advertisement using Romney's words, released Wednesday morning and scheduled to run in battlegrounds Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The ad includes video of Romney saying, "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility." An announcer interjects, "And Mitt Romney will never convince us he's on our side."
With early and absentee voting beginning in a number of states, both sides hoped to lock in votes long before Election Day. The first of three presidential debates is scheduled for Oct. 3, and the two camps were looking to secure any edge as Obama's post-convention polling advantage seemed to be ebbing. Obama planned a rare full day at the White House Wednesday, including a private meeting with Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi; Romney scheduled a fundraiser in Atlanta and two appearances in Miami, including a candidate forum with the Spanish-language TV network Univision.
The Romney campaign continued to respond to the criticism of his fundraiser remarks Wednesday by pointing out videotaped comments Obama made in 1998 as evidence he favored government redistribution of wealth. An Illinois state senator at the time, Obama said he believes in redistribution "at least to a certain level to make sure everybody's got a shot."
"I know some believe that government should take from some to give to the others," Romney said in an interview Tuesday on Fox News Channel. "I think the president makes it clear in the tape that was released today that that's what he believes. I think that's an entirely foreign concept. I believe America was built on the principle of government caring for those in need, but getting out of the way and allowing free people to pursue their dreams."
But in his Fox interview, Romney continued to cast a segment of the country as unable to rally around his tax-cutting message.
"I recognize that those people who are not paying income tax are going to say, 'Gosh, this provision that Mitt keeps talking about lowering income taxes, that's not going to be real attractive to them,'" Romney said. "And those that are dependent upon government and those that think government's job is to redistribute, I'm not going to get them."
Some Republicans distanced themselves from their party's nominee.
"I disagree with Governor Romney's insinuation that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care," Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate for a Senate seat in Connecticut, said in a statement posted to her website.
Sen. Scott Brown, facing a tough re-election race in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, said of Romney's comments, "That's not the way I view the world."
And New Mexico's Republican governor, Susana Martinez, noted in reaction to Romney's remarks that many in New Mexico live at or below the poverty level, and "that safety net is a good thing."
On Wednesday, the Romney campaign released two television ads accusing the Obama administration of conducting a "war on coal." The ads come one day after Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources disclosed that it is closing mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and eliminating 1,200 jobs. Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield blamed the shutdowns, in part, on "a regulatory environment that's aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal."