Mitt Romney didn't back down Tuesday from his claim that nearly half the country is dependent on the government, looking to parlay the episode into a wider debate about the role of the federal bureaucracy and how it shapes personal ambition.
Rather than distance himself from leaked footage in which he tells backers "There are 47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victim," Romney painted President Obama as the distributor in chief.
(Watch highlights from the footage above, or the full video below)
"We believe in free people and free enterprise, not redistribution," Romney said on Fox News, taking a jab at Obama. "Those who are dependent on government, those who think government's job is to redistribute, I'm not going to get them."
It was far from clear that Romney would be able to turn the leaked video into a political advantage. Some analysts suggested the episode would remain a drag on his White House hopes through the election, while others predicted the incident would soon be overtaken by other events during a fast-paced campaign.
"To me, it's another brick in the wall to make the case why voters should find Romney untrustworthy," said Christopher Lehane, a Democratic strategist and former aide to President Clinton. "It plays into the negative image that Romney doesn't care about people like you. Even worse, he's speaking directly to people who he needs to vote for him."
But some political observers said Romney would be wise to double down on the government dependency rhetoric, saying that voters are fed up with what they view as a steady stream of handouts from Uncle Sam.
"This election poses a choice for voters: do you want a country dependent on government programs and handouts, or do you want a country with an economy that produces good jobs and returns America to a higher standard of living?" asked Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, the nation's largest Tea Party group.
Tax data show that of the 10 states with the highest percentage of nontaxpayers, eight are deep-red states in the South, where voters overwhelmingly support Romney. The remarks are unlikely to turn any of those states toward Obama. If the leaked video turns off similar voters in swing states, however, it could prove disastrous for Romney's White House prospects.
Though Obama enjoys more support from the lowest-income voters, a third of those with a household income of less than $24,000 back the former Massachusetts governor, Gallup said Tuesday.
The Obama campaign was able to gain months of traction out of Romney's refusal to release more of his personal tax returns, largely defining the candidate in summer's dog days of the campaign. It remains to be seen whether "47 percent" speech will stick. But Obama's surrogates didn't wait long to fire their opening salvo.
They released a blistering Web video Tuesday that shows people reacting to Romney's speech.
"I actually felt sick to my stomach," one woman says.
The firestorm surrounding Romney's private fundraiser reminded some of then-Sen. Obama's claim that blue-collar voters like to "cling to their guns or religion" during a swanky California fundraiser in 2008. Obama was able to put that controversy in his rearview mirror in the Democratic primary before a decisive general election victory.
Even some Democrats conceded that the tight contest remains largely unchanged and that Romney has time to change the dynamics of the race.
"Despite all Romney's mishaps," Lehane conceded, "this is still going to be a close election."