Story highlights

Some Republicans in Congress cautiously defend Romney, try to clarify remarks on Obama supporters

Republican candidates in tough Senate races distance themselves from comments

Senator Lindsey Graham believes people won't change their minds based on fund-raiser comments, but urges Romney to do more retail campaigning

Washington CNN  — 

It is not a good sign when your high profile political allies have to spend their day explaining and clarifying what you said.

But that’s what happened in conversation after conversation with Republican senators on Wednesday as they tried to verbally navigate their way through requests for reaction to Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comments writing off – and dismissing - 47% of Americans who will support President Barack Obama “no matter what.”

“I think what he was saying is the fact that over the last four years the government is playing a bigger and bigger role in our lives because the economy is weaker and weaker and he wants to turn that around,” said Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a close Romney ally who is helping him prepare for next month’s debates.

“I know him personally and I know that he does care,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Ayotte and Portman both represent critical swing states in the November election.

“I know that he cares about every American and I know his vision is one where he wants every American to have opportunities and a good paying job, and to make sure that their families are safe and protected,” said Ayotte.

Portman and Ayotte fell into the camp of cautious defenders, playing damage control by trying to better articulate comments Romney said were “not elegantly stated.”

But other GOP lawmakers didn’t even try to sugar coat how politically problematic Romney’s “47%” remarks, made during May fund-raiser, were.

“The comments are very unfortunate,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “It clearly isn’t helpful and it’s surprising that a disciplined candidate would make those kind of comments,” she said.

“I think that Mitt will be able to recover from this, but he would be well advised to talk about his economic plan, the need for more jobs and perhaps explain what he was trying to say, which I think was that we need comprehensive tax reform, which most Americans are for, but certainly it was not helpful at this critical time,” said Collins.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, predicted people won’t change their votes based on an “ill conceived analysis at a fundraiser.”

But Graham was still critical of the Romney campaign, saying he is doing too much fund-raising in safe states like Utah and not enough retail campaigning in critical swing states.

“I think what Romney needs to do is get into Virginia and run for sheriff. This is not rocket science,” said Graham, meaning that Romney should be shaking every last hand in those states that could determine the election.

Some Republicans in tough races of their own went out of their way to distance themselves from Romney’s comments

“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 and as a United States senator, I think I represent everybody and i think every vote is important,” said Nevada GOP Senator Dean Heller.

“I don’t write off anybody,” he remarked flatly.

Heller is in a tight campaign against Democratic challenger Shelley Berkley and was candid about the link between Romney’s fate and his own.

“At this point I believe that if Mitt Romney wins Nevada, I win Nevada,” said Heller.

Heller noted that he doesn’t “make a habit of responding” to what Romney or others say on the campaign trail but that he felt compelled to speak out about Romney’s comments that Obama voters believe they are victims and the federal government has a responsibility to take care of them.

Heller noted that his father needed government assistance when he was unable to work because of back surgery.

“One of the responsibilities of the federal government is a safety net. I believe in a safety net. I believe that’s one of the responsibilities of the federal government,” said Heller.

A day earlier, two other Republican Senate candidates – incumbent Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Linda McMahon of Connecticut– released campaign statements denouncing Romney’s comments.

Several GOP lawmakers openly embraced Romney’s controversial comments.

“I think the basic point is correct. It’s what this election is about. Do we want a government - centered society? Do we want to continue to build government and grow our debt at an unsustainable level and bankrupt this nation? Or do we want to start working toward a path of opportunity, success, things that actually make this country great,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-PA, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, both conservatives, agreed.

“I think it’s being overblown. Governor Romney knows very well that many of the folks who don’t pay income taxes are nevertheless very aspirational in nature and very open to the Republican message of growth,” Toomey said.

Senate Democrats seized on the remarks and suggested the controversy would spill over from the presidential race and hurt Republicans running for Senate.

“We have a long line of people who are running from Romney as if the Olympics are still on,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “We have lots of people running from him and obviously there is a good reason for running.”

The most telling moment of the day was not what was said, but rather what was not said by Senate Republican leaders.

Instead of taking questions from reporters as he almost always does after his party’s weekly policy lunch, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell left the microphones after quick remarks.

Other members of the GOP leadership did the same thing – walked away instead of being in a position to defend – or explain – Romney’s controversial comments.