WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans insist that Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comment won't hurt them in their campaigns, but that didn't stop them from running for the hills when the subject came up.
In the last week that Congress is in session before the November elections, none of the Senate Republican leaders took questions from reporters at their weekly press availability -- something rarely, if ever, seen. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) left after giving brief remarks, and the remaining four leaders spoke briefly about unrelated matters and then walked away.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told The Huffington Post it was “pretty obvious” why the GOP leaders bolted: because they don’t want to talk about a newly released video that shows Romney describing 47 percent of Americans as Obama supporters who are dependent on the government and see themselves as victims. Romney has been on the defensive over the remarks, which he made during a private event in May that was secretly taped and made public this week.
"Everybody is running away from Romney,” Reid said. “That's why Republicans all over the country are running away from Romney as fast as they can."
He made that point to reporters earlier Wednesday.
"We have a long line of people who are running from Romney as if the Olympics are still on," Reid told reporters. He ticked off the names of GOP politicians -- Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Connecticut Senate nominee Linda McMahon -- who have publicly distanced themselves from Romney over the matter.
Martinez is "running really fast," Reid said, and Brown is "sprinting out there."
Reporters were left to track down individual Republicans to get their reactions to Romney. Most insisted the former Massachusetts governor's assertions didn't entirely reflect their own views. Yet many stood by his broader point that too many Americans are getting help from the government.
Reporters surrounded Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, shortly after the leaders decamped from the microphones and asked if the Romney video came up during their weekly lunch.
"I just don't think we ought to talk about what was said at lunch," Blunt said, laughing weakly when asked if senators had to leave their smartphones -- i.e. video cameras -- outside of the lunch.
He did say, though, that he didn't think it was "a great concern" to GOP senators that Romney dismissed 47 percent of America. In fact, he said Romney should probably keep talking about the fact that too many people are reliant on the government.
"It could have been better said," Blunt said. "Trying to get more people into the active economy should be the fundamental debate of this election. I'm not sure it's not good for Gov. Romney to go right ahead and pursue that discussion."
The second-ranking Republican in the Senate, Jon Kyl of Arizona, echoed Blunt, and suggested Romney try harder not to write off entire portions of the population as potential supporters.
"I think if he were to recharacterize what he thinks about the vote he's going to get, he would appreciate that a lot of the folks that are currently receiving some benefit from the government are very likely to vote for him," said Kyl, noting that those include people on Social Security and getting Medicare benefits, as well as people who are in dire economic straits.
Others thought Romney needed to be more inclusive, as well.
"From my standpoint, we start out with the fact that conservatives, Republicans, are concerned about every American," said Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). "We want to make sure this is a land of unlimited opportunity where every person can build a good life."
Yet he said he agrees with the broader substance of Romney's remarks. "What Gov. Romney is talking about is just the very unfortunate reality that there are far too many Americans that have become addicted and dependent on government," Johnson said. "The basic point is correct. It's what this election is about. Do we want a government-centered society ... or do we want to start working toward a path of opportunity and success?"
At least two senators in tight races were far more adamant in slamming Romney. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Brown both stood by statements distancing themselves from the party standard-bearer.
"It's not how I think. I think that people who are in those situations are not there by choice," Brown said. "I'm going after every person's vote, regardless of their economic station in life, regardless of their political party."
"I have a very different view of the world. I believe that the federal government has certain responsibilities," Heller said. "I also believe in a safety net for individuals that need the help. So that's why I would respectfully disagree with the comments that he made."
Most Republicans argued that the videos were a non-issue that won't affect the race, although Kyl allowed the that top of the ticket could sway contests in Ohio, Virginia and other swing states.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted the economy would matter more than Romney's callous-sounding comments, but said Romney has yet to make a sale.
"I think people are ready to fire Obama, but they're not yet ready to hire Romney," Graham said. "And they're not going to hire Romney until he tells them here's what I'm going to do."