CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the middle class has been "buried" during the past four years, a statement that Republicans immediately seized upon as an unwitting indictment of the Obama administration.
Biden tried to clarify his comments later in the day, declaring that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan would hurt middle-class voters.
"The middle class was buried by the policies that Romney and Ryan supported," Biden said, attempting to squelch the controversy before it could provide momentum to the GOP heading into the first presidential debate, a session on economic policy scheduled Wednesday night in Denver.
Romney pounced on Biden's initial comment, saying on Twitter that he agrees with the Democratic vice president: "the middle class has been buried the last 4 years, which is why we need a change in November."
Biden told about 1,000 people in Charlotte that Romney would cut taxes for millionaires and raise them for middle-class families.
"This is deadly earnest," Biden said. "How they can justify raising taxes on a middle class that has been buried the last four years? How in Lord's name can they justify raising their taxes with these tax cuts?"
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, said a Romney presidency is a solution for middle-class families who feel "buried" by taxes or government policies.
"We need to stop digging by electing Mitt Romney the next president of the United States. Of course the middle class has been buried," Ryan said in Burlington, Iowa. "They're being buried by regulations; they're being buried by taxes; they're being buried by borrowing. They're being buried by the Obama administration's economic failures."
Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for Obama's campaign, said the Republican response to Biden's remarks was "another desperate and out-of-context attack."
Republicans hoped that Biden's remarks would give them a boost heading into Wednesday's debate between Romney and President Barack Obama.
In an afternoon conference call arranged by the Romney campaign, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu said Biden's comment helped "set the stage" for the debate. Of the two candidates on the debate stage, only Obama is responsible for the pain middle-class families feel, Sununu said.
"Vice President Biden finally got something right when he made the admission that the middle class has been buried in the last four years under President Obama. I suspect it is probably in his debate preparation he's been looking at the statistics that are out there. The middle class has been devastated under President Obama," said Sununu, who served as White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush.
Sununu said viewers should expect Romney to refer to Biden's remarks as they watch the debate Wednesday night.
How the middle class has fared during Obama's tenure is a mixed picture. Many have benefited from an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts under Obama, and a new cut in payroll taxes over the past two years. A resurgent stock market has helped those who have 401k retirement accounts.
But the value of houses, the most valuable investment for many families, still hasn't fully recovered from the housing bust that started before Obama took office in January 2009. Unemployment remains stubbornly high from the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and wages are stagnant.
A September Associated Press-GfK poll found 36 percent of likely voters think their family's financial situation has worsened in the last four years, compared to 27 percent who see improvement. Those with annual incomes below $100,000 are twice as likely as their higher-earning counterparts to say their finances have gotten worse in the last four years, 41 percent compared with just 20 percent among the higher income group.
During appearances in Charlotte and Asheville, N.C., Biden repeatedly blamed Republican policies for hurting middle-class voters.
"The last time these guys were in charge for eight years, they put two wars on a credit card, they refused to pay a single penny — a single penny — for a new entitlement program for prescription drugs and they added a trillion-dollar tax cut for millionaires and billionaires, all unpaid for," Biden said.
"These are the facts," Biden said, calling the Romney-Ryan economic plan "Bush economic policies on steroids."
By comparison, Biden said, Obama's plan asks the wealthy to pay only a little bit more in taxes.
"The middle class has done enough. They have done their part. Let's not lay more burden on the middle class," Biden said.
Biden has visited North Carolina several times as vice president, most recently last month to attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Both campaigns are putting efforts into winning North Carolina, a battleground state where Obama narrowly won in 2008. Polls show a close contest this year between Obama and Romney.
Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC
Daly reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Steve Peoples and Ken Thomas in Washington, Susanne Schafer in Asheville, N.C., and David Pitt in Burlington, Iowa, contributed to this report.