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Romney responds to ‘very poor’ criticism: ‘My energy is gonna be devoted to helping middle income people, all right?’

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

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(Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

SOMEWHERE IN THE AIR BETWEEN FLORIDA AND MINNESOTA—A day after trouncing Newt Gingrich in the Florida primary, Mitt Romney sought to downplay a comment he made during an interview on CNN on Wednesday, in which he said he's "not concerned about the very poor"—a quote that has been seized upon by President Obama's re-election campaign as a sign that Romney is out of touch.

Speaking to reporters on his plane, Romney said his remark had been taken out of context. "No no no no no no no no," Romney said, when asked about the quote. "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."

Romney's full comment to CNN was: "I'm in this race because I care about Americans. 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 America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling, and I'll continue to take that message across the nation."

His meaning, he explained on the plane, is that he's focused on the middle class.

"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," Romney explained. "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.

Romney also gave no signs of letting up on his criticism of Newt Gingrich.

Surprising a cabin full of sleepy reporters in the rear of his campaign plane en route to Minneapolis-St Paul, Romney talked up his Florida primary win as a "huge night" for his campaign. Reminded about a line in his victory speech Tuesday night in which he insisted the party would unite behind the nominee, Romney was asked if he thought that would still be possible if the primary campaign goes all the way to the convention—as Gingrich has threatened to take it.

"It's hard for me to predict how far we go," Romney said, saying it was "dependent on each of the other candidates."

Then, unsolicited, he began tick off a series of talking points that are likely to define the race in coming days. Romney said he, not Gingrich, was the true conservative in the race. Florida's election results proved that conservatives are uniting behind his candidacy, he said—despite the fact he lost many counties in the most conservative part of the state.

"The other candidates are trying to say they're the conservative and you stop and say, 'Now wait a second: What are the major issues of our times that conservatives have a viewpoint on?'" Romney said, a hint of an edge in his voice. "One of them would be cap and trade. Well, I'm the guy who refused to sign a cap and trade bill in New England. And the speaker sat down with Nancy Pelosi on cap and trade. So who's the conservative on that one?"

Romney pointed to Gingrich's criticism of Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal—highlighting that he had said it was a "major advance," while Gingrich called it "right-wing social engineering."

"I mean his big idea in the last campaign was building colony on the moon," Romney scoffed. "Spending that kind of money I don't consider conservatism. And by the way there's only one person on stage who's argued for a national healthcare mandate as late as 2000, and that was Speaker Gingrich. So I'm not saying he's not conservative. I'm just saying he's not the pure conservative he would have people believe, and I think folks in Florida saw through that."

As he turned to return to his seat, a weary reporter asked, "Are you going to take some time off ever?"

Romney let out a huge laugh. "I have no plans right now," he said, amused."You're not that interested for me," he said, chuckling. "You're interested for you."

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