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Friday, September 21, 2012

Fallout From \"47 Percent\" Comment Hits Senate Campaigns


If there was any doubt that Mitt Romney‘s secretly recorded comments about the “47 percent” had jumped beyond the presidential campaign, it was erased with the first question of the Virginia Senate debate on Thursday.

Noting that the Senate contest between George Allen and Tim Kaine was occurring “in the shadow of the presidential contest,” David Gregory, the moderator of the debate and the host of NBC‘s “Meet the Press” program, asked the candidates to reflect on Mr. Romney's characterization of nearly half of the country as dependents who pay no federal income tax.

The answer by Mr. Kaine provided the newsiest moment in an otherwise predictable debate - and a prime example of how difficult it can be for candidates at all levels to navigate touchy issues that emerge on the presidential campaign trail.

In several of the most bitterly contested Senate contests across the county, candidates spent the week nervously trying to avoid getting caught up in the political fallout from Mr. Romney's comments. The remarks were first reported by Mother Jones magazine, which posted video clips on its Web site Monday.

Republican candidates, in particular, sought to distance themselves from Mr. Romney's assertion that nearly half of the country believed that they were “victims” and were entitled to a range of services that made them dependents of the federal government.

But as Mr. Kaine proved on Thursday, the issue can be tricky for some Democrats, too.

Mr. Kaine, the state's former Democratic governor, called Mr. Romney's comments “condescending and divisive,” but then went on to say he might support the idea of a minimum income tax that would ensure everyone pays at least some tax.

“I would be open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone,” Mr. Kaine said.

It was clearly an attempt by Mr. Kaine, who served as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to appear moderate on taxes and appeal to independent and Republican voters in Virginia who might be bothered by residents who pay no taxes at all.

But it provided an opening for Mr. Allen, the former Republican governor and Senator, to attack Mr. Kaine for “proposing” a new tax on all Virginia residents.

During the debate, Mr. Allen repeatedly dodged questions about whether he agreed with Mr. Romney's comments, saying that “I have my own point of view, and my point of view is that people of America still believe in the American dream.”

But after the debate, Mr. Allen seized on Mr. Kaine's response, saying, “I don't think everyone ought to be payi ng income taxes.”

In the presidential campaign, President Obama sought to keep the issue of Mr. Romney's comments alive by jabbing at his rival during a forum for Latino voters hosted by Univision in Florida on Thursday.

“When you express the attitude that half the country considers themselves victims and wants to be dependent on government, my thinking is that you haven't gotten around a lot,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, sought to move past the controversy by insisting that he was concerned about “100 percent” of the people in the country. He also seized on a comment by Mr. Obama, who said Thursday that “you can't change Washington from inside, only from the outside.”

Meanwhile, Senate candidates were still trying to figure out how to handle the weeklong controversy.

In Wisconsin, Senator Tommy Thompson, the Republican candidate for Senate, blamed Mr. Romney's recent messaging troubles for his own drop in the polls in h is state. A new survey showed Mr. Thompson trailing Tammy Baldwin, the Democrat in the Senate race, by 9 points.

“The presidential thing is bound to have an impact on every election,” Mr. Thompson told WKOW, the television station in Madison on Wednesday. “You know, whether you're a Democrat or Republican. If you're a standard-bearer for the presidency is not doing well, it's going to reflect on the down ballot.”

In Massachusetts, the first debate between Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic challenger, and Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent, avoided any mention of Mr. Romney's comments.

That may be because Mr. Brown had moved quickly to denounce Mr. Romney's assertion that so many people saw themselves as victims. On Tuesday, Mr. Brown said, “That's not the way I view the world. As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in.”

Ms. Warren has made a point throug hout the campaign of trying to tie Mr. Brown to Mr. Romney's views. During the debate on Thursday, Ms. Warren said repeatedly that she agreed with Mr. Obama's policies. Mr. Brown never mentioned Mr. Romney once.

In Nevada, a similar dynamic has emerged in the race between Dean Heller, the Republican candidate, and Representative Shelley Berkley, the Democratic candidate.

“Keep in mind, I have five brothers and sisters. My father was an auto mechanic. My mother was a school cook. I have a very different view of the world,” Mr. Heller told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “And as United States Senator, I think I represent everyone, and every vote's important. Every vote's important in this race. I don't write off anybody.”

In Connecticut, Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate for Senate, was quick to say that she disagreed with what she called “Governor Romney's insinuation” that nearly half of all Americans consider themselves to be victims.

“I know that the vast majority of those who rely on government are not in that situation because they want to be,” she said in a statement on her Web site this week. “People today are struggling because the government has failed to keep America competitive, failed to support job creators, and failed to get our economy back on track.”

What do all of those Senate contests have in common? They are all close races. The outcome of any of them could determine which party in Washington controls the Senate next year.

The question for all of the candidates is whether the debate over the “47 percent” ends up being a brief diversion or a lasting issue. If it lasts, it could help shape a two-month, state-by-state conversation about the role of government and the fairness of the tax system.

Or it could fade into the background, another intense - but fleeting - controversy that is largely forgotten by Election Day.