MIDLAND, Texas — Mitt Romney claims he's got a winner with his criticism that President Barack Obama is giving welfare recipients a free ride. Never mind that aspects of his argument against the Democrat are factually inaccurate.
Those flaws aside, Romney's team is pressing on with the charge that the president ended a provision requiring welfare recipients to work. Romney aides insist the argument is helping them gain ground with middle-class voters anxious about the economy and independents who see Obama's welfare changes as an indication that he is a typical liberal, not a moderate. But the campaign offers little evidence to back up those assertions.
Obama's team, in turn, says Romney's welfare charges are dishonest. Numerous independent fact-checkers, including The Associated Press, have determined that Romney and his surrogates are distorting the facts.
"Everybody who's looked at this says what Gov. Romney's saying is absolutely wrong," Obama said Monday. "They can run the campaign they want, but the truth of the matter is you can't just make stuff up."
But that criticism has done little to persuade Romney and his aides to abandon the welfare issue or even tweak its assertions.
The White House says the waivers Obama approved for states last month would only allow them to drop the work requirement if they can accomplish the same goals using different methods, a move Obama aides said was done at the request of both Republican and Democratic governors.
Romney's welfare push comes with risk for the presumptive GOP nominee. Focusing too heavily on welfare, which had barely registered as a campaign issue before Romney began pushing it, could turn off voters who want to hear the candidates offer specific prescriptions for job growth.
It could open Romney up to criticism that he is injecting race into the campaign and seeking to boost support among white, working-class voters by charging that the nation's first black president is offering a free pass to recipients of a program stereotypically associated with poor African-Americans.
And Romney runs the risk of denting his credibility with voters by peddling an argument that has been widely debunked.
Republican strategists dismiss those concerns, and many are urging Romney to press on with the welfare accusations.
"It's a huge advantage issue for Romney," said Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist. "It cuts right through, beyond the Republican base, to independents and blue-collar Democrats."
Romney has been pushing welfare in most of his public events, telling voters he would "put work" back in the federal program. The campaign has also run three television advertisements this month in battleground states accusing Obama of gutting welfare reform, and two Web videos with the same message.
A Web video released Tuesday, "Only in America," featured a man who grew up on welfare and credited the work requirement for helping his family break out of a "cycle of dependency" and gain economic independence.
Romney's arguments center on a memo the Obama administration issued in July saying it was interested in approving state experiments that will help "find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment."
The administration said states would not be able to escape the work requirements of the landmark 1996 federal welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton. But states may get federal approval to try to accomplish the same goals by using different methods than those spelled out in the legislation.
The administration said the waiver program is a response to concerns from state officials in both parties that the work requirements in the law are too rigid and create bureaucratic hurdles to actually placing welfare recipients in jobs. Officials said the program does not violate the underlying law because of a provision that allows waivers of state plans.
The Obama administration's memo was issued with little notice and angered some Republicans who said the waivers would result in an end of the work requirement.
With Obama and Romney locked in a tight race, some Republicans see the welfare push as a sign that the Republican recognizes he needs to expand his economic argument beyond just jobs if he hopes to break through before November.
"It's a tacit acknowledgement that it's not enough to just hammer the economy," said Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster who worked for Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. "That will get you to 46, 47 percent, but it won't get you to 51 percent."
Obama campaign officials say they see no evidence in their internal polling that Romney's welfare criticism is helping the Republican gain any ground.
Democrats see Romney's focus on welfare as an attempt to put a wedge between Obama and Clinton, the popular former president who has taken on an increasingly active role in Obama's re-election campaign.
Clinton, seeking to steer his administration toward the political center, signed a welfare reform law in 1996 that replaced a federal entitlement with grants to states. It also put a time limit on how long families can get aid and required recipients to go to work eventually.
Clinton is among those who have called Romney's welfare attacks dishonest and false.
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