Beyond carefully crafted statements, several prominent Tennessee Republicans who have called for a national debate about federal entitlement programs are refusing to evaluate Mitt Romney's belief that nearly half the nation is "dependent upon the government."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Bob Corker, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Rep. Scott DesJarlais declined interview requests Thursday, sidestepping whether they agree with the Republican presidential nominee's comment that 47 percent of Americans consider themselves "victims" who feel they're "entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."
All but Alexander face re-election in November.
Vanderbilt University political science professor David E. Lewis said he believes the Tennessee foursome wants entitlement reform -- just not in a way that "impugns the character of a large portion of the American electorate."
"They've got to get re-elected, too," he said.
Captured on video and obtained by the magazine Mother Jones, Romney's comments have dominated the presidential race in recent days. Republicans are divided, with some describing the candid moment as the beginnings of an important policy conversation and others calling it an inconsiderate gaffe that hurts the party politically. Even Romney said his remarks were "inelegant."
"Having come from humble roots, Chuck Fleischmann understands that many of those receiving government benefits would prefer to be working," Fleischmann spokesman Alek Vey said in a prepared statement that also characterized "handouts" as "ultimately detrimental to the success of the American people."
Alexander, on the Senate floor in March, called for Congress to handle "the big issues the American people would like us to deal with," including jobs and spending. Asked for his reaction to Romney's comments, Tennessee's senior senator essentially declined to comment in a statement issued by a spokesman.
"I'm sure both Gov. Romney and President Obama are looking forward to their Oct. 3 debate during which they can discuss in a serious forum with millions watching how to get the economy moving again," Alexander's statement said.
DesJarlais did not issue a statement, and Corker said he would work with Romney on fiscal reform.
"I hope to have the opportunity to work with him to put the issue in the rearview mirror and put our focus back on being a great country in all ways," Corker said in a statement.
At the state level, Gov. Bill Haslam distanced himself from Romney's remarks, which included a prediction that the 47 percent "will vote for this president no matter what." The governor described Romney's comments as "political calculus."
"He made a statement about, 'Hey, it might be hard to win some folks' votes,'" Haslam said at a news briefing Wednesday. "I think our response within government obviously is to care about everyone."
Haslam serves as state chairman of Romney's Tennessee campaign, but said "I'm not on the inside strategy of the campaign."
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Romney's statistics were about right, citing U.S. Census Bureau data that showed 49 percent of Americans receiving some kind of federal benefits. But many beneficiaries — including more than 1 million Tennesseans on Medicare and 1.2 million on Social Security — paid federal taxes into the relevant programs before they enrolled.
A study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center revealed that about 38 percent of Tennesseans don't pay federal income tax -- another demographic Romney lumped into his discussion of "the 47 percent."
But nonpayers often have reasons, including some middle-income and wealthy families who use government-created deductions and tax credits. Others don't make enough money or take advantage of tax breaks created exclusively for senior citizens or college tuition.