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Romney keeps relearning history's gaffe lessons

Who says Mitt Romney doesn't worry much about the very poor? That he believes corporations are people, too? That his wife drives two Cadillacs?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Who says Mitt Romney doesn't worry much about the very poor? That he believes corporations are people, too? That his wife drives two Cadillacs?

Romney himself, that's who. When it comes to portraying the Republican nominee as an uncaring, out-of-touch rich guy, he's his own worst enemy, offering up a bonanza for Democratic attack ads.

Romney hit the trifecta this time by saying that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims, think "government has a responsibility to care for them" and are unwilling to step up and support themselves.

He may seem doomed to relearn the same loose-lips lesson over and over again in 2012. But Romney's far from the first candidate to blunder into a buzz saw of his own words. His rival, President Barack Obama, still hasn't lived down a similar incident from 2008.

In both cases the uproar was amplified because the remarks were intended only for the ears of wealthy campaign donors, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. "It's damaging when the public perceives that something said in private is not being said in public," she said.

But this time, for Romney, the perception "that the statement speaks potentially to character and personality as well as to policy positions makes it more potentially damaging," Jamieson added.

Obama was caught on video belittling small-town Midwesterners in remarks to San Francisco liberals at a private fundraiser during his first presidential campaign. People struggling to get by in the small towns of Pennsylvania and the Midwest "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion," Obama said.

Obama's Democratic primary rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, pronounced his remark "elitist and out of touch."

Four years later, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan is keeping the gaffe alive by pointedly declaring himself proud to be a Catholic deer hunter.

And witness the Republicans' joyful riffing on Obama's more recent "You didn't build that" comment.

Steve Frantzich, a U.S. Naval Academy professor who wrote a book on candidates' "oops" moments, predicts an even faster rate of flubs in the future, thanks to smartphones, YouTube and such. "There is no backstage area in modern campaigns," Frantzich said. Words gone wrong are nothing new, however.

Romney has said he first learned to fear such slip-ups as a young man, when the presidential hopes of his father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, imploded 45 years ago under the weight of a single ill-chosen phrase.

Asked why he had previously supported the Vietnam War, the elder Romney said that during an overseas tour, generals and diplomats had influenced him with "the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." He quit his campaign amid outcry and derision.

Some other overheard or off-the-cuff gaffes:

—OBAMA AND THE RUSSIANS: In March, an open microphone caught Obama telling Russia's outgoing president that he needed space to work out their disagreements over U.S. missile defense plans. "After my election, I have more flexibility," Obama quietly told Dmitry Medvedev, who said he would carry that message home. Romney called it evidence that Obama is hiding a secret agenda for a second term.

—OBAMA AND THE ISRAELIS: A technology glitch allowed reporters to overhear Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy last year grousing about the difficulty of dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sarkozy called Netanyahu a "liar" and Obama responded sympathetically, "I have to work with him every day."

—KERRY AND THE WARS: A response to a question at a campaign event tripped up 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Asked about a spending bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Kerry said, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." Republicans ridiculed the remark and featured it in an ad showing a windsurfing Kerry zigzagging "whichever way the wind blows." Kerry later explained it as "one of those inarticulate moments."

—CLINTON AND DRUGS: Bill Clinton was mocked for acknowledging in a TV interview that he had tried marijuana as a college student but insisting that he "didn't inhale." With character questions already dogging his 1992 campaign, the remark increased complaints that he was slick and evasive, but didn't keep him from winning the White House.