WASHINGTON -- Two Republicans in tight Senate races went a long way to distance themselves from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney Wednesday -- all the way back to their childhoods.
Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) both disparaged Romney's recently revealed opinions that he wasn't worried about 47 percent of Americans because they don't pay federal income taxes and would only support President Barack Obama. "[T]here are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them," Romney said.
Brown is challenged by former consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, who has been running as a champion of the middle class. Heller is facing Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in a state that's been among the hardest hit by the Great Recession and most dependent on federal aid.
In an effort to prove they are not like the wealthy Romney and far more understanding of people suffering misfortune, both pointed to hardscrabble upbringings.
"I think that people who are in those situations are not there by choice. They want to work," Brown told reporters. "My mom and dad were married and divorced four times each. [I] lived in 17 houses by the time I was 18.
"My mom did get assistance, and it's something I remember very clearly," Brown said, linking his trip down memory lane to his current service. "That's why I've been fighting for LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program], and food stamps, and unemployment benefits for people to give them that helping hand that they need."
Similarly, Heller talked of a modest upbringing.
"You gotta understand my background," Heller said. "I had five brothers and sisters. My dad was an auto mechanic. My mom was a school cafeteria cook. So I have a very different view of the world. I believe that the federal government has certain responsibilities.
"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," Heller said.
Heller had earlier told reporters about how his father was once out of work for six to eight weeks following back surgery and needed to rely on the safety net, something he called "one of the responsibilities of the federal government."
Some Democrats were quick to point out, though, that having a scrappy childhood doesn't mean you've always sympathized with others who have struggled.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Heller may be trying to distance himself from Romney's remarks, but that he'll need to be "really careful" with how he does so, based on his own past comments.
The fact that Heller is rejecting Romney's comments is "interesting coming from someone who just a short time ago compared the unemployed to hobos," Reid told reporters Wednesday. "That was his word. Hobos."
Reid was referring to a comment Heller made in 2010 in the context of extending unemployment benefits to 24 months. During an event with the Elko County Republican Party in his home state, Heller questioned the wisdom of regularly extending those benefits.
"Is the government now creating hobos?" Heller asked.
Heller campaign spokeswoman Chandler Smith said Heller never called unemployed people "hobos," and that he supported efforts to help the unemployed. The 2010 comment was "referring to a presentation made by Lawrence B. Lindsey, former Director of the National Economic Council at the White House, before the Republican Members of the House Ways and Means Committee," Smith said in a statement.
Heller has also taken heat for mocking a constituent who participated in Cash for Clunkers, a government program that paid people who traded in old cars for newer, more fuel-efficient models.
"Congratulations. Everybody else in the room paid for your car," Heller declared to a constituent who said during a local event that he had participated in the car swap program. The constituent later vowed never to vote for Heller again.