The Republican frontrunner for president, multimillionaire Mitt Romney, has shocked anti-poverty groups and the media with a televised admission that he does not care about the very poor.

Romney told CNN: "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich.... I'm concerned about the very heart of America - the 90-95 percent of Americans who are struggling."

The anchor of the programme replied: "There are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say, 'That sounds odd.'"

"We will hear from the Democrat party, the plight of the poor. You can focus on the very poor, that's not my focus," Romney added.

"The middle-income Americans, they're the folks that are really struggling right now and they need someone that can help get this economy going for them."

The New York Times described his comment as "breathtakingly callous even by the modern standards of Republican heartlessness". American voters were willing to elect very wealthy presidents as long as they demonstrated sympathy for the poor, it added.

The Washington Post said that Romney's "awkward phrasing could give fuel to critics who argue that he does not empathise with the poorest Americans".