Barack Obama said presidents must represent all of America, not just their own core voters, capitalizing on Mitt Romney's gaffe that 47 percent of his countrymen were tax-dodging "victims."
Obama took the high road but aimed a shot at Romney, who was still trying to regroup after the release of secret videos showing him disparaging Obama voters as government dependents who cannot take responsibility for their own lives.
"One of the things I learned as president is you represent the entire country. If you want to be president, you have to work for everyone," Obama told CBS talk show host David Letterman.
"When I won in 2008, 47 percent of the American people voted for John McCain," Obama said, referring to his Republican opponent that year.
"They didn't vote for me, and what I said on election night was: ‘Even though you didn't vote for me, I hear your voices, and I'm going to work as hard as I can to be your president.'"
Romney was seen telling donors in video released Monday that 47 percent of US voters were with Obama because they depended on the government for health care, food and housing, and viewed themselves as "victims."
"These are people who pay no income tax ... so our message of low taxes doesn't connect," he said in the secretly filmed footage of an event with rich donors that was published by Mother Jones magazine.
"My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," he said.
The comments bolstered an impression that Romney, a multi-millionaire former venture capitalist, has little understanding of the suffering endured by Americans stuck in the slow recovery from the deepest recession in decades.
Less than 50 days before the November 6 election, the Republican's campaign got a moment of relief Tuesday when Gallup's daily tracking poll found him drawing within a single percentage point of the president.
The survey suggested that Obama's polling bounce following the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago had subsided.
But an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll published Tuesday evening put Obama up 50 to 45 percent among likely voters, and pegged his approval rating at the 50 percent mark that incumbent presidents seek to ease their re-election hopes.
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The president, however, at a gala fundraiser hosted by music stars Beyonce and Jay-Z at their New York nightclub, cautioned his supporters against thinking the race was anything other than a tough fight.
"I don't want people to be complacent, but I also don't want people to be discouraged," he told around 100 guests at the 40-40 club, who each paid $40,000 for a ticket.
But it was the video of Romney addressing a meeting of well-heeled donors in Florida in May that continued to dominate the campaign. The leaked footage also featured frank talk from the candidate about stalled Middle East peace talks.
"I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there's just no way," Romney said.
"You move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem -- and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."
The White House said Romney's remarks showed he was not fit to lead and noted that Obama's predecessors, both Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush, took on the treacherous search for Middle East peace.
"It is simply the wrong approach to say we can't do anything about it, so we'll just kick it down the field," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "That's not leadership. That's the opposite of leadership."
Romney refused to apologize for his comments in the video, but tried to turn the furor into a debate about the effectiveness of government.
"We all believe that when people are distressed, when they need help, we give them temporary help. We pull them back up, but we don't believe in redistribution," Romney told 1,000 donors in Salt Lake City.
America should never be "a place where it's easier to get a federal subsidy than it is to get a job," he added.
Senior Romney advisor Kevin Madden put a brave face on the situation, saying the candidate is remaining "focused" on getting out his economic message.
"It's a close, hard-fought campaign and it will be until election day," he added.