Mitt Romney’s dilemma in reconciling his nomination and general election strategies has been nicely illustrated by the controversy he invited yesterday in telling Soledad O’Brien he was “not concerned about the very poor.” To most casual listeners, the remark seemed rather callous, particularly coming from a man of Romney’s vast wealth, who is seeking to lead a party devoted to the proposition that Americans must sacrifice to keep wealthy “job creators” from taking their capital and going home. Many Republicans thought it showed a characteristic clumsiness by a politician who doesn’t exactly have the common touch.

But Romney is also taking flak from conservatives who thought his comments about the “very poor”–and particularly his efforts to defend himself by pointing out that the “very poor” do benefit from “safety net” programs–showed too much interest in helping those most in need.

Here’s what Sen. Jim DeMint chose to say to Roll Call:

I would say I’m worried about the poor because many are trapped in dependency, they need a good job; they don’t need to be on social welfare programs….

I think all of this is a teachable moment for America. I think Bain Capital was, and I think he finally turned that around and showed some confidence in his success, and we need to do that here. We do worry about the poor when they’re trapped in government dependency programs and the education system’s not producing the skills [and] character for them to succeed, and I think it is an important thing for him to backtrack on that. I don’t think anyone thinks he doesn’t care about the poor, but I think he’s trying to say they’re taken care of right now with these programs. Those are the programs that are hurting, not just the poor, but our country. We need to address it at every level.

A few years ago, remarks like this from DeMint would be laughed off by many as the ravings of a lonely crank, but nowadays, you could make the case he is the single most influential politician in the GOP, an excellent barometer of the conservative zeitgeist, and certainly someone Mitt Romney has to listen to closely. So every time he opens his mouth, he has to think about how his words will resonate with regular people, but also people like DeMint who think the country is far too generous to the very poor, and figures they mainly need the moral rigor of being left on their own.

Romney’s indeed in a chronic jam. It’s tough to be a serial flip-flopper under such cross-cutting pressures. When does he flip and when does he flop?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.