By DAVID ESPO
AP Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON - Fresh signs of a national housing rebound and growing support in public opinion polls boosted President Barack Obama's bid for a new term in the White House on Wednesday as Republican rival Mitt Romney struggled to quell his video controversy.
The challenger's attempts to get his campaign back on track ran into new difficulty in the form of criticism from rank-and-file Republicans concerned about their own election prospects in the fall.
"I have a very different view of the world," said appointed Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, taking issue with Romney's dismissive comments about the 47 percent of all Americans who pay no income taxes. Separately, Senate GOP leaders avoided answering questions about their presidential candidate at a news conference in the Capitol.
After days of virtually non-stop political damage control on issues foreign and domestic, Romney told an audience at an Atlanta fundraiser: "The question of this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class. I do. He (Obama) does. The question is who can help the poor and the middle class. I can. He can't."
The former Massachusetts governor spoke about 48 hours after a video emerged that showed him telling donors last May that as a candidate for the White House, "my job is not to worry about" the millions of Americans who don't earn enough to pay income taxes.
Obama spent the day in the White House, a rarity in a race with less than seven weeks yet to run. He invited democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar to the Oval Office, a chat between two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Romney raised campaign cash in Georgia in advance of an evening appearance in battleground Florida, his first before a public audience since the emergence of the videotape. Under pressure from fellow Republicans to campaign more extensively, he was considering adding at least one appearance to a light weekend schedule, officials said.
In a campaign dominated all year by the sluggish economy, the government said construction of single-family homes jumped to the highest rate in more than two years. Separately, the National Association of Realtors reported that home sales rose last month to the highest level since May 2010.
Real estate has been among the slowest sectors of the economy to recover from the national downturn of 2008. The administration has struggled to reverse a decline in home values that left millions who managed to avoid foreclosure owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
There was downbeat news, as well, in an economy struggling to create jobs. State officials in Michigan reported the state's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in August rose by four-tenths of a percent to 9.4 percent, well above the national average of 8.1 percent. Romney grew up in Michigan, but he has yet to contest it seriously in his quest for the White House.
A new AP-GfK poll - taken before the Romney video was revealed - put Obama's overall approval rating among voting-age adults at 56 percent. That was above 50 percent for the first time since May, and at its highest level since the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden more than a year ago.
Among likely voters, however, the race was a statistical tie, with Obama at 47 percent and Romney at 46 percent.
The two were also tied statistically when it came to handling the economy and the federal deficit, while the president was preferred on issues of protecting the country, handling health care and understanding the problems of "people like you." On a question of personal credibility, 50 percent of likely voters said Obama more often says what he really believes, while 42 percent said that applied to Romney.
At the same time, 61 percent of likely voters described the economy as poor, and only 22 percent described it as good more than 3 1/2 years after Obama took office, another indication of the challenges he faces as he bids for a new term in a time of long-term unemployment over 8 percent nationally.
Other new surveys suggested growing support for Obama in the wake of back-to-back national political conventions and Romney's struggle last week to explain an erroneous statement issued at a time of demonstrations - one of them deadly - at U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken Sept. 12-16 put the president's lead among likely voters at 50-44 percent nationwide.
State surveys by Quinnipiac University, The New York Times and CBS News showed Obama at over 50 percent support among likely voters in Virginia, with 13 electoral votes, and Wisconsin, with 10. Obama carried Wisconsin handily four years ago, but Romney recently signaled he was hoping to make it competitive.
The two men were in a statistical tie in Colorado, which has 9 electoral votes, in surveys conducted between Sept. 11 and 17.
A Washington Post poll also showed Obama with a lead in Virginia.
All the surveys were taken before the flap erupted over Romney's "47 percent" remarks.
Taken together, they showed a highly competitive race as Obama and Romney pursue the 270 electoral votes needed for victory, although with the president in a stronger position than before the two political conventions and with the economy still the dominant issue.
"This is our election to lose," maintained Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "There's a reason no president has ever been elected with economic numbers like this. If Obama wins, he'll be rewriting political history."
For now, Romney is working to reframe the video controversy into a philosophical difference between himself and Obama - to his own advantage.
"Instead of creating a web of dependency, I will pursue policies that grow our economy and lift Americans out of poverty," he wrote in an article in USA Today that omitted any reference to the furor.
At his fundraiser in Atlanta, however, he referred for a second day in a row to a video of Obama, made in 1998. An Illinois state senator at the time, Obama said he believed in income redistribution, "at least to a certain level to make sure everybody's got a shot."
Romney added that the country "does not work by a government saying, become dependent on government, become dependent upon redistribution. That will kill the American entrepreneurship that's lifted our economy over the years."
Responding for the president, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Romney's efforts to push the 14-year-old video were the work of a candidate having "a very bad day or a very bad week."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took up the cause in highly personal terms.
"So who are those Americans Mitt Romney disdains as 'victims' and 'those people?"' the Nevada Democrat said in a speech on the Senate floor. "They're not avoiding their tax bills, using Cayman Island tax shelters or Swiss bank accounts like Mitt Romney."
Romney's campaign released two television ads accusing the Obama administration of conducting a "war on coal." Aides said they were triggered by an announcement on Tuesday by Alpha Natural Resources that it will close mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and eliminate 1,200 jobs.