The claim sparked howls of outrage in liberal media circles, and has been picked up by the mainstream press, sparking a rare attempt by Romney to address the matter in person.
In a hastily convened press conference, the Republican presidential candidate confirmed the authenticity of the video, but opted against disavowing the views expressed in it. He said only that the case was not "elegantly stated" and that he had "spoken off the cuff".
He was speaking after a secret video recording was posted on a website in which he was caught denigrating people who receive benefits from the government.
He went on suggest they could expect little help from him if he became president.
"My job is not to worry about those people," he said.
He added that all these government-dependent people would support Barack Obama.
The video was recorded a few months ago at a fundraising event behind closed doors.
The release of the video is the most damaging episode yet in a campaign filled with Romney mishaps. His campaign is in danger of turning into one of the most ineptly-run in recent US political history, though there are still seven weeks left to turn it round.
The Obama campaign described the video as "shocking".
In his press conference, in California, Romney essentially repeated the case he made in the video, that the 47% of Americans who were dependent on the government would vote for Obama, though couched in slightly less inflammatory language. Obama's policies are "attractive to people who do not pay taxes", Romney said.
Romney tends to avoid the press as much as possible and it is a sign of the seriousness of the situation that he had to make an impromptu statement. He attempted to pose his comments as part of a broader philosophical debate about the future of America. "Do you believe in a government-centred society that provides more and more benefits? Or do you believe instead in a free enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams?"
He insisted he wanted to help all Americans.
While his views about people dependent on the government will be applauded by parts of the right, he risks alienating independents who do not share his view of American society and also motivating disgruntled Democrats who may have otherwise have abstained in the November 6 election to get out and vote.
It also plays into the portrait that the Democrats have been gradually building of Romney as an extremely wealthy individual who is out of touch with working-class and middle-class Americans.
At a bare minimum, the controversy ensures it will be the dominant theme of the week, with Romney forced on the defensive again, with detailed discussion of who precisely constitutes the 47%.
It also means that the issue of how much he himself paid in taxes will resurface, with calls for him to release his tax returns beyond the two years he has volunteered.
The video was posted on the website of the liberal Mother Jones magazine. It came only hours after the Romney campaign acknowledged it was struggling by announcing plans to change strategy. Romney is trailing Obama in the polls by about three percentage points.
In the video, Romney said: "All right, there are 47% who are with him [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."
He added: "These are people who pay no income tax."
Apart from offending a large part of the population, the comment is also inaccurate. Many of those he includes in the 47% do pay tax. Many of those also receive government money because they are elderly and have been paying into the system all their lives.
The controversy broke only hours after the Romney campaign set out to recalibrate its strategy. It said it would attempt to give a clearer, more positive picture of their candidate as it seeks to regain the initiative with just 50 days to go until the election.
The new strategy will not abandon negative campaigning, but will focus on positive ads as well as speeches to spell out the Romney would pursue in office, in particular his five-point economic plan.
Romney began his campaign early in the summer intent on making the election about Obama's economic record and making himself as small a target as possible by disclosing little about his own policies.
But since then there has barely been a clear week in which Romney has been able to get his message across, either because of a barrage of ads on his record as chief executive of Bain Capital and his unwillingness to release more than two years' worth of tax records, or because of gaffes on his own side. – © Guardian News and Media 2012