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Gaffe king Mitt could blame it all on his genes

Willard Mitt Romney was born with a silver foot in his mouth. It is possible to forgive it as a congenital trait.

After all, his dad, the genial George Romney, successful head of the American Motors Corporation and governor of Michigan (1963-69), lost his own bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 by setting a world record for the mass spouting of gaffes.

He had such a penchant for saying one thing and then retracting it that the reporter Jack Germond announced he was fixing his keyboard so that a single keystroke produced the phrase "Romney later explained".

It was charming for a time to hear what George had said lately, but when he came back from a look at the Vietnam War, he announced he'd had "the greatest brainwashing anyone could get". This time it was a gaffe too far.

Some American prisoners recently released by the Chinese had renounced their US citizenship, saying they'd been brainwashed, and primary voters had no enthusiasm for electing a president who might turn out to have been the Manchurian candidate. So we got Nixon and Agnew instead. Thanks, George.

Mitt was on a similar jag through the nomination process. "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me? My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs? I'm not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net?"

Men and women who've been looking for work for a year are supposed to appreciate the irony when he opens up: "I should tell my story. I'm also unemployed." It's tough getting through the Great Recession when your net worth is just a few hundred million.

Arriving in Britain for the Olympics, of course, his tin ear wins a tin medal for finding the organisation "disconcerting". David Cameron's put-down is still being celebrated as classic British one-upmanship.

These gaffes have been seen as evidence of the insensitivity of a man who inhabits a parallel world, rather than manifestations of ineptitude disqualifying him from high office. He undoubtedly has the managerial competence for that.

For all the demonisation of Mitt's venture capital company, Bain, he showed he could chart a future for dying companies and create a thriving new one (such as the Staples stationery chain), just as he turned a corrupt shambles of the Utah Winter Olympics into a showcase.

He will never be the president who can figure out bipartisan deals with the opposition, as Ronald Reagan did regularly over drinks with his "old buddy" Speaker Tip O'Neill (neither can Barack Obama). Nor will he be a bumbling Warren Harding, captive of corrupt whisky-sodden cronies. Mitt is squeaky-clean.

And it can fairly be said that while Obama is a very likeable president who inherited a financial catastrophe, he has not exactly excelled as a Reagan-style rejuvenator.

He gave priority to healthcare over jobs, failed to retain convincing economic counsel and unwisely delegated his vital stimulus package to a pork-barrel Congress. He is seen more now as a caretaker of decline, rather than a healer of the planet.

This is where Romney's latest excursion into unreality is so maddening to Republicans, with only seven weeks to voting. A select few wealthy men and women were present at the dinner where Mitt asked for their donations, but the videotape, made in May, is now being viewed by millions of voters as the secret unveiling of the portrait of Dorian Gray, with Mitt revealing his dark soul.

See, Democrats are saying nationwide in a swelling chorus, see his contempt for half the population, the other half, the ordinary decent Americans. You there in the 47 per cent whom Mitt says will vote for Obama are lazy good-for-nothing moochers. You must be. You don't pay any income tax, you gorge on food stamps, you "believe you are entitled to healthcare, to food and housing, you name it".

No amount of retouching can change the image, not Mitt bounding on stage a day later to say this election is about the 100 per cent; not the energised hard-Right Tea Party activists whose views fleck the foam on the internet sites ("The bastards should be paying taxes like the rest of us"); not Donald Trump telling him he has nothing to apologise for.

Mitt may have quelled the anxieties of the Right that at heart he was still a closet liberal, the governor of Massachusetts whose healthcare law was a model for Obama's -- but at what a price.

His conflation of the 47 per cent who pay no federal income tax with feckless Obama voters is also offensive to millions of his own voters who don't earn enough to pay federal tax, but do pay state, payroll and sales taxes, and pride themselves on their sense of responsibility -- among them, the elderly, the military, the young, and the poor but proud Hispanics.

It has to be said, amid the uproar, that a few of the things Romney was captured saying on the unwelcome videotape are true or defensible. The country is concerned at a culture of dependency. The huge and astounding mistake Romney made -- out of his lack of real connection with people -- was to blame this on the Americans and not the administration.

No American want to be reliant on food stamps. They want work, and that's what the administration has singularly failed to effect. This election looks like it is going into the history books as the Battle of the Percentages. Surprisingly for a man who eats balance sheets for breakfast, Romney chose the wrong ones.

The Left has drummed up a phoney populism around the one per cent who own the country. In fact, the critics of Obama have a higher percentage of the percentages on their side to show how the administration has failed to achieve a recovery, among them: 18 per cent of adults without full-time work; 40 per cent of the unemployed out of work for six months or longer; 15 per cent dependent on food stamps and social security; and 66 per cent who believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Yet the percentage that counts most is Obama's five-point lead over Romney and his lead in battleground states with a large number of electoral votes. This is crucial. The winner-takes-all system awards all a state's electoral votes to whoever receives most votes in that state.

Leading Republicans were already lukewarm about their man, but their hopes of putting a Republican in the White House and retaking the Senate are hardly assisted by the formation of a circular firing squad of leading party intellectuals facing grassroots activists.

Influential Republican columnists such as Bill Kristol, David Frum and former Bush aide, Mark McKinnon are aghast at the Romney Ramblings: "The tape reveals a deeply cynical man who would likely govern in a way that would only further divide us" [McKinnon]; "Stupid and arrogant" [Kristol]; "The worst presidential candidate gaffe since Gerald Ford announced in 1976 there is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe" [Frum].

This is heresy to Erick Erickson, of Redstate.com, who speaks for the hardliners of the Grand Old Party -- the Republicans' traditional nickname -- and is scathing about those who have been sucked into the inner circles of Washington DC's political establishment.

"For once we see Mitt Romney undercover and off the record, and he sounds like a real person not pulled by the gravitational forces of the DC GOP media elite who have capitulated to $16trn in national debt," he writes.

"And suddenly those Beltway Republicans are beating up on Romney for saying something off the cuff, maybe not as polished as he should have but that is agreed by a majority of Americans."

The "Beltway Republicans" that the hard Right assails know full well that "God bless half of America" is not much of a prayer for getting out the vote, but I believe in their hearts they'd rather lose the election than see the party of Lincoln lose its soul to the far Right. They are aghast at what they see as a betrayal of the ideals of the great emancipator.

Meanwhile, Karl Rove, the Svengali who won two elections for George W Bush, has his tin helmet on and he's whistling in the dark, trying to reassure one and all that the uproar will die down. And that this is not Romney junior's own brainwashing moment.

Sir Harold Evans is author of 'The American Century' and Reuters' editor at large

Sunday Independent