Mitt Romney says he will do a better job of helping the poor than president Barack Obama as the Republican tries to recover from a secret video that shows him dismissing nearly half the electorate as dependent on government help.
Romney has sought to make the November 6 election a referendum on Obama's economic stewardship, but over the past week the spotlight has been fixed firmly on his own missteps - most recently a video that shows him writing off Obama supporters.
Romney hopes to recover by framing the presidential election as a choice between big government and economic growth.
At an Atlanta fundraiser, Romney said he wants to spur job creation by encouraging private enterprise.
"The question in this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class. I do, he does," Romney said, jabbing the podium with his index finger and his voice rising with emotion.
"The question is who can help the poor and the middle class. I can, he can't and he's proven it in four years," he said.
Romney's campaign argues that Obama has presided over a stagnant economy, forcing more Americans to rely on food stamps and other government assistance.
The video, recorded in May at a luxurious Florida home, shows Romney telling wealthy campaign donors that 47 per cent of Americans will back Obama no matter what.
"I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," he said.
The remarks fed into a perception that multimillionaire Romney has battled throughout the campaign: that he is insensitive to the struggles of less-wealthy Americans.
They drew condemnation from Democrats and an array of Republicans, including congressional candidates and conservative columnists.
In an apparent attempt to deflect attention from the video, Republicans are pointing to a recording that surfaced this week of Obama discussing his belief in "a certain level" of wealth distribution.
"Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt
Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth," Romney's vice-presidential running mate Paul Ryan said at a campaign event in Danville, Virginia.
Romney had hoped to spend the week fleshing out his plan to bolster the economy until the video went viral on Monday and pushed the campaign into damage-control mode.
It came on the heels of a Politico report about dysfunction in his campaign and a statement on strife in the Middle East that was widely criticised as unstatesmanlike.
Republicans worry that their presidential candidate may not be able to recover in the seven weeks before the election.
"There is a broad and growing feeling now, among Republicans, that this thing is slipping out of Romney's hands," Wall Street Journal editorial writer Peggy Noonan wrote in a blog post.
"It's time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one."
A Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll showed Obama leading Romney 48 per cent to 43 per cent among likely voters.
Among all registered voters, Obama led 49 per cent to 38 per cent.
Romney already faced a more difficult path to victory as he can count on fewer sure wins among the 51 state contests that determine the outcome of the election.
Across the handful of states that remain competitive, Obama holds an advantage of 48 per cent to 46 per cent, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll.
Most polls have yet to reflect fallout from Romney's comments, which were released by the liberal magazine Mother Jones.
In the video, Romney gave voice to a conservative preoccupation that the expansion of income-tax breaks and the growing reach of government benefit programs risk dividing the country into "makers" and "takers".
Romney lumped all Obama supporters into the latter group.
Romney was referring to the 46 per cent of US households that paid no income taxes last year and the 49 per cent that received some form of government benefit, from housing assistance to Social Security pensions.
Those two groups include many Republican voters whose support Romney will need to win the White House.