DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney's offhanded comment that as a candidate he doesn't worry about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes has quickly entered the bloodstream in the presidential campaign's most hard-fought states.
His comment, in a video revealed this week, is prompting expressions of shock – but also shrugs – from Nevada to Florida to New Hampshire and the handful of battleground states in between.
Will it sway an election expected to be close?
There was much discussion in the relatively few states that are still considered competitive, likely to decide the race. Here, as elsewhere, the question was whether Romney was showing himself to be insensitive or merely delivering the hard truth a nation at an economic crossroads must face.
People's answers could make an Election Day difference in states where the race is tight.
"It sounds like he's leaving out half of America, if you ask me," said Gary Gabriel, an independent from suburban Columbus, Ohio, who decided in light of Romney's comments to support President Barack Obama.
But the remarks also reaffirmed the opinions of some Romney supporters.
"I worry a lot about the society we're turning into, more of an entitlement mentality," said Randy Schumaker, a Denver-area IT manager.
It all underscored the campaign's focus on the economy. And it stoked deeper questions about voters' expectations about the government's role in Americans' daily lives.
Outrage. Nodding approval. Both followed Romney's contention that 47 percent of Americans support Obama and that they "are dependent upon government" and "believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them."
In a Gallup poll taken Tuesday, about a third of the surveyed registered voters said they would be less likely to support Romney in light of the remarks, But more said the comments would not affect their votes. And most voters have already made up their minds on whom they will support, according to this and other surveys.
More voter voices:
"He does not have that empathy that says he really cares," said Michael Symes from the economically hard-hit Las Vegas area.
Student Morgan Palmer said he needs his college loan to get through Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. But he doesn't consider himself a government dependent. "I was really shocked," the 18-year-old freshman from Chantilly, Va., said. "This is a long-term investment, not short-term dependency."
Outside LaCrosse, Wis., however, retired mortgage loan officer Shirley Otto said Romney was merely delivering an unvarnished version of the straight talk the nation needs to hear.
"I'd rather be told the truth ... than be told something just to win an election," Otto said.
Romney's comments were recorded without his awareness at a private May fundraiser in Florida. They were provided to the magazine Mother Jones, which released them Monday.
By that evening, they had aired on evening news broadcasts in key battleground markets such as Denver and Milwaukee. By Tuesday morning, The Des Moines Register in Iowa and The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio featured front-page headlines about Romney's words.
They were the buzz outside a Joe Biden campaign rally in Ottumwa, Iowa, that morning, as they were at Phil Hopkins' paint store near, Columbus, Ohio. "It's kind of refreshing for someone to actually tell the truth for once," said Hopkins, an independent who supports Romney.
Unlike questions about diplomatic leadership that surfaced after deadly demonstrations at U.S. embassies in the past week, the attention over Romney's unguarded comments went to the heart of the presidential campaign's central issue, the economy, and the candidates' competing views of the government's role in the lives of millions of Americans out of work and living in financial uncertainty.
Romney, a wealthy former businessman who served a term as Massachusetts governor, neither disavowed nor apologized for the comments. He has said Obama has fueled government dependence, and he's now drawing attention to 1998 statements Obama made about redistribution of government resources, seeking to paint him as an enemy of the free-market solutions Romney prescribes.
On Wednesday, Romney said during a fundraiser in Atlanta that economic success "does not work by a government saying, `Become dependent upon government.'"
Romney has been retooling his campaign message amid pressure from his own party to push more aggressively against Obama. He's asking Obama supporters from 2004 to back him instead.
And while Obama and Biden's public comments were muted on Romney's remarks, that didn't stop their campaign from quickly producing a Web video featuring people reacting negatively. Obama has argued throughout his term and during the campaign that the federal government must expand access to health care and ease college loan and mortgage repayment to allow more Americans to enter the middle class.
By Wednesday morning, a pro-Obama group had produced a television ad using excerpts of the Romney video, and was scheduled to begin airing it in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin by the week's end.
As proof of what Democrats saw as the potential impact of Romney's comments, candidates for Congress in hotly contested races began immediately trying to tie their Republican opponents to them. In Florida, Democrat Lois Frankel sent out an email fundraising solicitation linking Romney's comments to her opponent Adam Hasner, who is Romney's Florida campaign co-chairman.
In Colorado, Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter excavated a months-old quip about food stamp recipients by Republican opponent Joe Coors and used it to try tying him to Romney.
Reserving the spotlight on the issue for his appearance Tuesday on CBS's "Late Show," Obama lightly questioned whether Romney had the sensitivity to be president. "You have to work for everyone, not just for some," Obama told host David Letterman during the show's taping.
Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Colorado, Todd Richmond and Roger Schneider in Wisconsin, Ken Ritter in Nevada, Andrew Welsh-Huggins and Debra Martin in Ohio, Brendan Farrington and Matt Sedensky in Florida and Holly Ramer in New Hampshire contributed.