Gerald Herbert / AP Photo
GOP front-runner Mitt Romney said this morning that he's not concerned about the plight of the country's very poor because there are social safety nets that take care of them.
"I'm in this race because I care about Americans," Romney told CNN's Soledad O'Brien this morning after his resounding victory in Florida on Tuesday. "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it."
"I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I'll continue to take that message across the nation."
The CNN anchor pressed Romney: "You just said I'm not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net. And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that?"
"Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad," said Romney. "I said I'm not concerned about the very poor that have the safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them…The - the challenge right now - we will hear from the Democrat Party, the plight of the poor, and - and there's no question, it's not good being poor and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle income Americans. My campaign - you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich. That's not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That's not my focus. My focus is on middle income Americans, retirees living on social security, people who cannot find work, folks who have kids that are getting ready to go to college. That - these are the people who've been most badly hurt during the Obama years."
The initial poll from O'Brien was about a new poll from the Pew Research Center indicating that when it comes to "understanding the needs of average Americans," President Obama scored 55 percent while he merited 39 percent.
If Romney wins the Republican nomination - his victory in the Florida primary Tuesday brings him a big step closer - Democrats will seek to label him as more concerned with business and corporate America than with working individuals. The comment about not being concerned with the very poor could play into that line of attack. In January, Romney said at a campaign stop that he once feared getting a pink slip. But that comment drew criticism from his Republican rivals, particularly Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has since dropped out of the race, because Romney is very wealthy and most of his income comes not from a paycheck, but from interest and capital gains.
On a campaign flight from Tampa, Fla., to Minneapolis, where Republican caucuses take place Feb. 7, Romney said the exchange on CNN was mischaracterized.
"What did you mean when you said you were not very concerned about poor people," a reporter asked him.
"No no no no. I - no, no. You've got to take the whole sentence, all right, as opposed to saying, and then change it just a little bit, because then it sounds very different," said Romney. "I've said throughout the campaign my focus, my concern, my energy is gonna be devoted to helping middle income people, all right? We have a safety net for the poor in, and if there are holes in it, I will work to repair that. And if there are people that are falling through the cracks I want to fix that. Wealthy people are doing fine. But my focus in the campaign is on middle income people. Of course I'm concerned about all Americans - poor, wealthy, middle class, but the focus of my effort will be on middle income families who I think have been most hurt by the Obama economy."
The social safety net has become a big part of the campaign for president among Republican candidates. Romney's chief rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has said that President Obama is a "food stamp president."
ABC's Emily Friedman contributed to this report.