Romney says he's "not concerned about the very poor" because of safety net

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to supporters during his victory celebration after winning the Florida primary election Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. AP Photo/Gerlad Herbert

Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET

Republican presidential frontrunnner Mitt Romney, fresh off his victory in the Florida primary, drew fire from conservatives on Wednesday after remarking that he's "not concerned about the very poor" -- the kind of remark that Democrats are sure to seize on as Romney inches closer to the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney appeared on CNN this morning and reiterated a point he's often made on the campaign trail -- that he's more concerned with the middle class than the very rich or very poor.

"I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair , I'll fix it," he said. "I'm not concerned about the very rich.... I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 to 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien asked him to clarify his remarks saying, "There are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say, 'That sounds odd.'"

Romney responded, "We will hear from the Democrat party, the plight of the poor and there's no question it's not good being poor... but my campaign is focused on middle income Americans... people who can't find work, folks that have kids that are getting ready for college."

He went on to say that the nation has a strong safety net for the poor, including food stamps, Medicaid and housing vouchers. (Watch the remarks in the video below.)

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to supporters during his victory celebration after winning the Florida primary election Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.
AP Photo/Gerlad Herbert

Indeed, the middle class has struggled in the past few years. But a large portion of those middle class Americans have, in fact, fallen into poverty. U.S. Census data revealed last month that nearly half of Americans qualify either as poor or low-income. Many low-income Americans don't qualify for programs like food stamps. Meanwhile, as Congress negotiates an extension of the payroll tax cut, Republicans want to reduce the maximum number of weeks a person can claim unemployment insurance from 99 weeks to 59 weeks.

Later on the campaign trail, Romney was asked if he thinks there are holes in the safety net.

"Oh I'm sure there are," he responded. "I'm sure there are places where people fall between the cracks. And finding those places is one of the things that is the responsibility of government."

Romney also emphasized once more that he is focused on the middle class.

Still, conservative commentators Wednesday morning were lamenting that Romney was giving more ammunition for the Democratic party to cast him as an out-of-touch elite. Indeed, Democrats have jumped on Romney for similar gaffes: President Obama's party hounded the former governor after he made a $10,000 bet in a Republican debate, and liberal groups attacked Romney after he said "I like being able to fire people" (in regard to people who provide health care services to him).

Other Republicans have taken heat for remarks emphasizing class differences -- the White House fired back after Newt Gingrich started calling Mr. Obama the "food stamp president."

But as Romney starts accumulating delegates for the Republican nomination, his remarks will have more ramifications, conservatives worry.

"Earlier today, I said that only Mitt Romney could derail Mitt Romney this month. Did my prediction come true already?" conservative blogger Ed Morrissey of HotAir.com wrote. "Romney fell into a class-warfare trap, one he should have seen coming."

On CBS This Morning today, Romney said he's ready for the attacks Democrats may launch against him, in part because of his contentious primary battle against Gingrich. "Clearly, what Barack Obama comes with will be a lot more money, even more vitriolic than what we faced so far, but we're prepared," he said.

Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul said later that it's Mr. Obama's policies that have "destroyed the middle class."

"His policies have given us a stagnant economy, high unemployment, declining wages, increase in poverty, and record amounts of new debt," she said. "President Obama is so detached from what is happening in the real world that he finds it hard to believe an unemployed engineer can't find a job."

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