(CNN) -- Fighting criticism of his controversial remarks on government dependency, Republican challenger Mitt Romney said Wednesday that he would better help poor and middle class Americans than President Barack Obama.
Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan also sought to reshape the campaign narrative less than seven weeks before the November vote by accusing Obama of favoring wealth redistribution -- code for socialism among conservatives -- based on a 1998 video of the president as a state Senate candidate in Illinois.
America does not work by government making people dependent on government, Romney told a fundraising event in Atlanta, adding "that will kill the American entrepreneurship that's lifted our economy over the years."
"The question of this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class? I do. He does," the former Massachusetts governor said to rising cheers. "The question is who can help the poor and the middle class? I can! He can't!"
Romney spoke as fellow Republicans appeared divided over his secretly recorded comments from a May 17 fundraiser that were made public this week.
"There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," Romney said in a clip from the event first posted online on Monday. "There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing."
He also said he would "never convince" the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax "that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
In response, three GOP Senate candidates in tough races this fall have distanced themselves from Romney's comments.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, told CNN on Wednesday that he had a "a very different view of the world" than what Romney expressed.
"As a United States senator, I think I represent everybody, and I think every vote is important," Heller said, adding: "I don't write off anybody."
A day earlier, Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and GOP candidate Linda McMahon of Connecticut released campaign statements denouncing Romney's comments.
Some conservative commentators also criticized Romney, questioning whether he understood the conservative principles he championed to win the Republican nomination.
"These appear to be the words of somebody who doesn't understand American conservatism and its relationship to the American idea," wrote journalist John McCormack of the conservative Weekly Standard. "Conservatives don't believe in economic determinism. Conservatives know -- and explain why -- their economic policies will help the poor, as well as senior citizens, working families, and our troops who pay no income taxes."
Others on the political right defended Romney's comments as an accurate assessment of growing societal dependence on government through entitlement and welfare programs that are major contributors to the mounting federal deficit and debt.
"I think the basic point is correct. It's what this election is about. Do we want a government-centered society?" said GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. "Do we want to continue to build government and grow our debt at an unsustainable level and bankrupt this nation? Or do we want to start working toward a path of opportunity, success - things that actually make this country great."
A flurry of polls this week showed Romney unable to make up ground on Obama and slipping behind in some key battleground states, including Virginia. A new CNN/ORC International survey on Wednesday showed Obama also holding a 52%-44% lead in Romney's birth state of Michigan.
Another new poll showed the secretly recorded Romney comments had a moderately negative impact on registered voters so far.
The Gallup survey taken Tuesday showed 36% of registered voters indicated they would be less likely to vote for Romney after the videotapes were released, while 20% said they were more likely to vote for Romney and 43% said the comments made no difference.
Meanwhile, the Drudge Report on Tuesday posted a video clip of Obama reportedly recorded in 1998 at Loyola University in which he discussed ways to make government more effective.
"I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution - because I actually believe in some redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot," Obama says in the clip.
Both Ryan and Romney made sure to mention the redistribution reference on the campaign trail on Wednesday.
"President Obama said that he believes in redistribution," Ryan told supporters in Danville, Virginia. "Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth."
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney characterized the GOP attacks as an effort to divert attention from Romney's controversial remarks.
Obama believed in 1998 and still believes that "there are steps we can take to promote opportunity and ensure that all Americans have a fair shot, if they work hard," Carney said.
"He certainly doesn't believe -- as some apparently do -- that any student who looks for a government-backed loan is looking for a handout or that a senior citizen receiving Social Security is a freeloader or a combat veteran not paying taxes is a victim," Carney continued, adding: "When a campaign is having a bad day or a bad week or some might say a bad month ... you sometimes witness an effort that seems desperate to change the subject."
Other Democrats were quick to pile on. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Romney's comments showed he only wants to be president of half the country.
"We have a long line of people who are running from Romney as if the Olympics are still on," Reid quipped about GOP Senate candidates Heller, Brown and McMahon.
Obama told the "Late Show With David Letterman" on Tuesday night that "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."
Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC, is using the Romney clips in a new television ad to characterize Romney as out of touch with Americans' economic struggles. The group said Wednesday the commercial would air in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, all battlegrounds that Obama won in 2008 and hopes to take again in November.
On Tuesday, Ryan said at a campaign stop in North Carolina that Romney's comments were "obviously inarticulate" but made the correct point that people have become too dependent on government under Obama.
Romney presented the same argument Wednesday in a USA Today op-ed.
"Under President Obama, we have a stagnant economy that fosters government dependency. My policies will create a growing economy that fosters upward mobility," he wrote. "Government has a role to play here. Right now, our nation's citizens do need help from government. But it is a very different kind of help than what President Obama wants to provide."
CNN's Dana Bash, Ted Barrett, Deirdre Walsh, Kevin Liptak, Paul Steinhauser, Shawna Shepherd, Rachel Streitfeld and Eric Weisbrod contributed to this report.