Gibbs on Priorities USA ad: I don't know "specifics" about ad's claim

Robert Gibbs.

(CBS News) Amid GOP outrage over a pro-Obama super PAC ad suggesting Mitt Romney was indirectly to blame for a woman's death, Robert Gibbs, a senior aide to the president's re-election campaign, is declining to criticize the ad, arguing that he does not know "the specifics" of the situation described in the video.

"This is an ad by an entity not controlled by the campaign. I certainly don't know the specifics of this man's case," said Gibbs, in a lengthy back-and-forth on MSNBC on the topic. "I do think there is a lot of concern in the country about what happens when people lose their jobs, we know that when they lose their jobs, because most of where people get their health care provided for is in their jobs, they tend to also lose their health care."

The ad, released Tuesday morning, featured Joe Soptic, a former employee of GST Steel in Kansas City, talking about his experience after the steel plant was shut down under Bain's leadership. Soptic cites "Mitt Romney and Bain" as closing the plant, but the Romney campaign says the candidate had by that time stepped away from his leadership position at the company.

"When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my healthcare, and my family lost their healthcare. And a short time after that my wife became ill," Soptic said in the ad, which was produced by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action.

"I don't know how long she was sick and I think maybe she didn't say anything because she knew that we couldn't afford the insurance, and then one day she became ill and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia and that's when they found the cancer and by then it was stage four," he continued. "And she passed away in 22 days."

The Romney campaign decried the ad as "dishonest" and "deplorable," and reporters noted reports pointing out that Soptic's wife died in 2006 - five years after the steel plant closed. CNN also reported that Soptic's wife had health insurance through her employer for at least some of that time.

FEC regulations dictate that super PACs may not directly coordinate with the campaign of the candidate it supports, and Gibbs suggested that it was because of those regulations that he was unaware of the details surrounding Soptic's case.

But the Priorities video was not Soptic's first public effort on Mr. Obama's behalf: In May, he appeared in an official Obama campaign video attacking Bain, and he also spoke on a conference call surrounding that ad, which was deemed "mostly true" by the fact-checking website PolitiFact.

Despite repeated questioning on MSNBC, however, Gibbs declined to take a definitive stance on the ad.

"The message is a little over the top. Can't you admit that?" asked one of the hosts, Joe Scarborough.

"Again, I don't know the specifics of this person's case," Gibbs said. "I know there's huge anxiety in this country about losing health care."

"What specifics would you like to know before you could pass judgment on whether that's appropriate?" asked Time magazine's Mark Halperin, a frequent commentator on MSNBC.

"I don't know the instances of what her health care covered, I don't know whether her insurance company approved every treatment. I don't, again, I don't know any of the dealings with the insurance company," Gibbs responded.

He did not say if the campaign would condemn the ads if they were proved inaccurate out they were inaccurate.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Obama campaign spokesperson Stephanie Cutter both declined to comment on the veracity of the ad.

"You do know that we don't have anything to do with Priorities USA," Cutter said on CNN. "By law, we're not allowed to coordinate with them, and by law, we don't have anything to do with their ads. I don't know the facts of when Joe Soptic's wife got sick or when she died. But as I said before, I do know the facts of what Mitt Romney did with GS Steel. I do know the facts of how Joe Soptic lost his job, lost his health care. The entire company went bankrupt. But Mitt Romney walked away with a pretty hefty profit."

Added Carney: "I have not seen the ad, and I would refer you to the campaign or to the organization. I can't comment on that when I haven't seen it."

The Republican National Committee (RNC) blasted the Gibbs and the Obama camp on Wednesday for "dodging questions" on the issue.

"For 9 minutes, Obama Senior Adviser Robert Gibbs refused to condemn an ad from the Obama-sanctioned Super PAC that has been called outrageous, false and inaccurate," read an RNC email blast. "Gibbs joins a litany of Obama staffers including Jay Carney, Jen Psaki and Stephanie Cutter who have refused to condemn the ad as they spend a majority of their interviews dodging questions."

Bill Burton, co-founder of the Priorities USA Action PAC, said the ad's intent was not to blame Bain and Romney for the death of Soptic's wife, but rather to demonstrate the lasting effects of his work at Bain.

"There are many factors to consider here, but the one thing we know is that when Mitt Romney came to town, made that investment and forced that company out of business, hundreds of workers lost their jobs, their health care and their pensions. The impact is felt still today in that community," he said.

Romney Press Secretary Andrea Saul said that if the couple had lived in Massachusetts, they would have been covered by the health care law Romney signed as governor. (She made no mention that Romney, as a presidential candidate this year, is distancing himself from the same law, which served as a basis for the one adopted nationally by Obama and Congress in 2010.)

"Under Governor Romney's health care plan, they would have had health care," Saul said on Fox News. "There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama's economy."

Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this report.