By Ed O'Keefe and Rosalind S. Helderman
The Washington Post
After two politically treacherous days, Mitt Romney is trying to right-side his campaign by focusing on something President Barack Obama said 14 years ago.
The Republican presidential candidate has been battered by relentless news coverage dissecting his assertion, caught on video, that "47 percent" of Americans feel entitled to government assistance. Now his aides believe they've stumbled upon a way to change the subject.
In a 1998 audio clip that surfaced online Tuesday afternoon, Obama is heard speaking at a conference at Loyola University, where he suggested that society needed to come up with a plan to "structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution, because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody's got a shot."
Romney pounced on those comments, which Obama made when he was an Illinois state senator, at an Atlanta fundraiser on Wednesday. Obama's speech, Romney said, indicated support for a European-style system that would never work in the United States.
"I know there are some who believe that if you simply take from some and give to others then we'll all be better off. It's known as redistribution," Romney told the crowd. "It's never been a characteristic of America."
"This idea of redistribution follows from the idea that if you have a business, you didn't build it - someone else did that," Romney said, harkening back to Obama's "you didn't build that" line from a speech he made in July to point out that small businesses have relied on some government support.
Romney also brought up the 1998 speech in a Fox News interview Tuesday and in a USA Today op-ed published Wednesday, all part of a new strategy to raise doubts about Obama's economic theories, draw attention away from Romney's criticism of Americans who don't pay income tax, and perhaps also add the word "redistribution" to the list of well-worn, right-wing attack lines, including "Are you better off?" and "Drill baby, drill."
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the newest GOP assault the sign of a "desperate" campaign that is having a "very bad week."
"The charge based on this 14-year-old video sounds very familiar to one that was tried and failed in 2008," Carney said Wednesday. In 1998, "then-Senator Obama was making an argument for a more efficient, more effective government, specifically citing city government agencies that he did not think were working effectively. He believed then and believes now that there are steps we can take to promote opportunity and ensure that all Americans have a fair shot if they work hard."
The shift in campaign tactics comes just days after aides said Romney would begin offering details of his five-point economic plan, as voters become more attentive to the campaign and after polling data suggested they're eager to learn more about Romney's policy positions.
But in a memo to reporters Wednesday, Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said the campaign would now focus instead on the rivals' "starkly different visions" for the country.
"Mitt Romney's vision for America is an opportunity society, where free people and free enterprise thrive and success is admired and emulated, not attacked," Rhoades said in the memo. "President Obama's vision for America is a government-centered society, where government grows bigger and more active, occupying more of our everyday lives."
On the campaign trail Wednesday, Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., even slipped a new attack line into his standard stump speech.
"He's going to try and distract and divide this country to win by default," Ryan said during an event in Danville, Va. "You know, President Obama said that he believes in redistribution. Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth."
On Capitol Hill, Romney supporters aimed at Obama.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of Romney's most prominent surrogates, said Obama's 1998 remarks give "more insight into what he views government's role as."
"This is a president who believes the government's job is to pick winners and losers in the economy," Rubio told reporters Wednesday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., suggested that Romney should campaign more aggressively in key swing states, particularly Virginia.
"If we win Virginia and one of Ohio and Florida, we're going to win this thing," Graham said. "So, if I were Mitt Romney, no person in Virginia could go very long without meeting me."
Democrats appeared buoyed on Wednesday. Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, met behind closed doors with Senate Democrats for their weekly caucus lunch, a gathering described by participants as upbeat.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Messina told senators that he expects the presidential race to remain close, but he also described polling data from key swing states that appeared to be solidifying for the president.
"What impressed me, as much as anything, was the pace of volunteers, calls, voter registration is dramatically larger than it was four years ago," Durbin said of the data.
In another sign of renewed Democratic optimism, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., suggested Wednesday that Romney's dismissal of nearly half of the American electorate could work to swing key House and Senate races.
"I think what's happening is that the American people, particularly the middle class in America, are getting a clearer and clearer picture that the Democratic Party is on their side and the Republican Party is not," Hoyer said.
On the Republican side, that possibility was causing some concern among some GOP candidates, who were direct in seeking to distance themselves from Romney's video comments.
Sen. Dean Heller, locked in a tight race for reelection against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in Nevada, became the third GOP Senate candidate to take issue with Romney's comments, telling reporters Wednesday that he has "very different view of the world" when it comes to competing for the votes of those who do not pay income tax or who receive government assistance.
And Mark Meadows, a Republican running for an open House seat in the Asheville, N.C., area, said that voters in his district don't fit Romney's description at the fundraiser.
"I'm concerned about all 750,000 people," Meadows said at a televised forum Tuesday night. "I am here to represent the people of this district."
Washington Post staff writers Felicia Sonmez and David Nakamura contributed to this report.