Obama, Romney Both Weakened by Attacks But Race Remains Close

Despite frantic back-and-forth between campaigns, race remains static.

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After a week or so of being knocked on its heels by calls for more transparency on tax returns and questions about Mitt Romney's tenure at the venture capital firm he led for decades, the campaign for the Republican presidential hopeful is going all-in on attacking President Barack Obama.

Continuing to seize on comments made by the president at a campaign event, in which he uttered the phrase, "if you have a business, you didn't build that" the Romney campaign is hosting 24 events in battleground states featuring disgruntled business owners maintaining that they did, in fact, build their businesses.

"'You didn't build that' – he said it, he meant it," read an E-mail subject line blasted from the Romney campaign to reporters.

[Read: Romney seeks contrast with Obama abroad.]

"When President Obama declared that Americans didn't build their businesses, he wasn't saying anything extraordinary, he was just saying what he actually believed," said Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg in a release. "We tried it his way, and middle-class Americans have paid the price. Our country deserves a new direction and a president who doesn't devalue hard work and entrepreneurship."

Obama's extended remarks make it clear he meant that business owners, and other successful Americans, benefit from good schools, infrastructure and other tax-payer funded support.

(Ironically, the first business the Romney's team highlighted to counter the president's words received a $500,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, as well as $800,000 in tax-exempt revenue bonds and sub-contracts with the U.S. Navy, according to an interview the owner gave soon after the ad aired.)

But Republicans appear to have hit a sensitive spot, as the Obama campaign has released no less than three ads and web videos pushing back against the "out of context" remarks.

"Of course Americans build their own businesses," says Obama, speaking directly into the camera, in an advertisement released Tuesday. "Now what I said was, we need to stand behind them as America always has, by investing in education, training, roads and bridges, research and technology."

[Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

A new poll shows both campaigns reeling a bit from the spate of negative attacks – and each side has keyed in on the vulnerabilities of their opponent.

Obama leads Romney by six points, 49 percent to 43 percent, according to the latest national survey by NBC News/Wall Street Journal. That's an increased lead of three points for Obama from last month. But the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus three points, also shows each candidate with increasing negatives, which may hurt them with swing voters as the campaign drags on.

Obama's negative ratings are the highest recorded in similar polls, though more people have favorable opinions of him than not. Romney's are far worse and would be the first Republican nominee since 1996 to head into his party convention with more people having a negative opinion of him than positive, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Romney, as expected, continues to lead the president when it comes to who voters believe has better ideas for improving the economy – 43 percent to 36 percent. The stagnant state of the economy has long been the biggest drag on Obama's re-election chances and Romney's 'Mr. Fix-It' acumen has been at the heart of his campaign pitch. However, voters continue to believe that Obama is better at looking out for the middle class by a whopping 16 point margin, 49 percent to 33 percent.

[Obama campaign spending furiously as Romney takes control of fundraising race.]

Both those results reveal why Obama's team is hard at work painting Romney as an out-of-touch elite with exotic bank accounts veiled in secrecy, who only cares about cutting taxes for the rich. And conversely, it's why the Romney campaign is using the president's own words to show him as anti-business and pro-government.

The complexion of the campaign has shifted a little in recent days, taking a break from the most heated rhetoric over the weekend following the deadly mass shooting in Colorado, and shifting away from domestic policy to foreign policy as Romney embarks on a foreign trip to England, Israel and Poland coinciding with the start of the London Olympics.

But as the polling has consistently shown, the country is widely polarized and events that were expected to affect the race – including the Supreme Court's ruling on the president's controversial health care reform law and continued weaker-than-expected job growth numbers – have had little impact. The battle for the White House continues to lie in a handful of battleground states and an even smaller number of truly undecided voters.

Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at rmetzler@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter.

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