President Barack Obama's re-election campaign has waged a monthslong ad war on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, his personal finances and his economic policies overall. But top Obama strategist David Axelrod said Wednesday that Romney and "his friends in the super PAC world" were to blame for the public perception that the incumbent is trying to win ugly.
Axelrod's comments on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" came after a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 22 percent of Americans think Obama is running a negative campaign, compared with 12 percent who say Romney is skewing negative. (The poll found that 34 percent of Americans think both candidates have gone negative. A puzzling 25 percent say neither. And 7 percent "don't know.")
So why do Americans see the candidate of hope and change in 2008 as more of a bare-knuckle brawler in 2012?
"That's because the Romney campaign, and their friends in the super PAC world, have just spent tens and tens of millions of dollars specifically on spots accusing Obama of running a negative campaign," Axelrod said on MSNBC. "So I'm not surprised to see those numbers jump a little."
Axelrod went on to, in effect, defend the campaign's assault on Romney.
"There's no doubt that we've been tough, and we've raised questions that needed to be raised and frankly still haven't been answered," the strategist said. "That's part of this process. You get scrutinized in this process."
Team Romney's rejoinder was to paint him as Axe in Wonderland, with spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg scoffing at his "laughable claim" and sending reporters a graph highlighting the proliferation of Obama attack ads.
Axelrod also played down the large number of poll respondents who said they had a negative view of Obama, again pinning the blame on Republican advertising.
"There have probably been 110-120 million dollars of negative ads run against the president just in the last few months, and so they're going to have an impact," he said. "That's just part of politics."
"I think what's noteworthy is that the president's standing has held up under this torrent," Axelrod said. "And I think there are growing questions about Gov. Romney that he's abetted because he won't talk about his past and he won't talk about the future, and that's a hard way to get elected president of the United States."
The poll found that 49 percent of Americans have a very or somewhat positive view of the president, 8 percent are neutral, and 43 percent have a very or somewhat negative view. For Romney, the figures were 35 percent very or somewhat positive, 23 percent neutral (giving him room to change voter perceptions between now and November) and 40 percent very or somewhat negative. Both candidates scored their highest "very negative" numbers—the likely result of the ugly campaign slugfest.
And it's not like the more voters learn, the more they like: More than 4 in 10 said they viewed the candidates less favorably as a result of what they have seen, read and heard about them in the past few weeks. (Not quite 1 in 3 said they viewed them more favorably).
The poll provided somewhat conflicting information about the No. 1 issue on voters' minds: the economy, which is still sputtering three and a half years after Obama vowed to put it on the mend.
The president got a 44-53 approve-disapprove rating on the economy. And Romney bested Obama 43-36 percent on which candidate had better ideas for fixing the economy. But Obama led 49-33 percent on who would look out for the middle class.
Obama carried the "personal likeability" contest by a 73-47 percent ratio.
Overall, the poll found Obama leading Romney nationally by 6 percentage points among registered voters: 49 percent to 43 percent. And the president's edge in pivotal battleground states—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin—was 49-41 percent.