Washington (CNN) -- First Mitt Romney makes two references to 47 percent. Then he suggests President Barack Obama "starts off with 48, 49."
"These are people who pay no income tax," Romney said at a May fund-raising event that was secretly recorded and is now at the center of a campaign controversy.
Because of that remark, most of the commentary has understandably assumed he was referring at all times to the roughly half of Americans who don't pay income taxes.
I think not.
The first reference -- 47 percent -- is the ballpark number smart pollsters in both parties consistently use to describe the president's most loyal base.
The math behind that?
Begin with the president's steady support among African-Americans, Latinos and other non-white voters. Then add in his backing among white, college-educated women.
So when Romney told the fund-raiser crowd there are "47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what" he was on solid ground and reflecting the consensus of his polling and political team.
But how he got from that data point to describing Obama's coalition as "victims who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them" is a mystery.
Not to mention a sweeping insult to many working-class voters and other taxpayers who support the president.
In the recording, obtained by the left-leaning Mother Jones, Governor Romney twice uses the "47 percent" figure pollsters, including his own, suggest is the president's base.
Moments later he uses the numbers "48, 49," presumably a reference to the nearly half of Americans who, in 2009, were not represented on a taxable return, according to data from the conservative Heritage Foundation.
In any event, much of what he says in describing these voters is eye-popping.
"There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they are the victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it, that that's an entitlement and they will vote for this president no matter what."
Many GOP strategists in Washington see this as another self-inflicted political wound, and the Obama campaign and its Democratic allies are gleeful for the opportunity to suggest it is proof that Romney is disdainful of working-class Americans and insensitive to those, who because of economic hardship or other reasons, need government help.
Now, to be clear, some grassroots conservatives are not unhappy, and are hoping Romney defends his remarks and pushes a debate on government assistance and dependency.
While a healthy debate about government programs and priorities is always useful, such sweeping generalizations as those used by Romney are often a path into political quicksand.
In 2008, Obama won 95% of the African-American vote, two-thirds of Latinos, 64% of other minority voters, and 52% of white women who are college graduates.
Take another look at those numbers.
Now think all of those voters fit this?: "These are people who pay no income tax."
Or this?: "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
It was recorded in May, but released seven weeks before Election Day, at a time when there is mounting evidence that the contest, while still highly competitive, is trending in the president's direction.
They say timing is everything in politics. The timing for Romney here is horrible. He needs to be making his case about tomorrow's economy, not trying to explain away things he said months ago.