THE HILL POLL: Voters divided on impact of Mitt Romney's business record

Voter opinion is almost equally divided on whether Mitt Romney’s business experience helps or hurts the presumed Republican presidential nominee, a new poll for The Hill has found.

That means one battle between President Obama’s reelection team and Romney aides — basically, a fight over what lessons should be drawn from the private-sector record of the former head of Bain Capital — is only likely to get more fierce in the months ahead.

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According to this week’s The Hill Poll, 34 percent of likely voters say Romney’s time in the private sector make them more likely to vote for him, compared to 30 percent who say it makes them less likely to support his presidential bid. Thirty-two percent say it makes no difference.

President Obama's reelection team took a direct swing at Romney’s private record earlier this month, launching a campaign aimed at painting the GOP front-runner as a predatory businessman who cut jobs in the hunt for profits.

Romney’s time at Bain earned him some criticism from GOP competitors during the primary, and the Obama camp followed suit, releasing an ad highlighting a steel plant that went out of business and laid off workers after Bain took it over.

“This is about the values Romney lived by,” said Stephanie Cutter, Obama deputy campaign manager. “This is about whether Romney’s business experience qualifies him to make the right decisions as president.”

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has also made his time running a business a focal point in his effort to unseat the president. Working to make the economy the primary issue on the campaign trail, Romney has argued that his lengthy time in the private sector proves he knows how to boost the economy. (Romney also noted that the particular plant cited by Obama’s camp closed two years after he left Bain.)

With both campaigns fighting hard, it appears that Obama may hold an edge. Thirty-nine percent of all likely voters see Romney as too friendly with business interests, slightly more than the 35 percent who see Obama as too hostile toward business.

Independent voters, who will be crucial in determining the outcome of November’s election, tend to be even more skeptical of Romney’s approach to business.

Among voters who did not identify with a particular party, 45 percent saw Romney as too accommodating to the private sector, significantly greater than the 32 percent who saw the president as too hostile on the issue. Independents also were more likely to favor Obama’s approach to business, with 47 saying he had it “about right,” compared to 43 percent who think that about Romney.

One finding that could be worrisome to the Romney campaign is how many voters take a skeptical view of the nation’s richest citizens.

By a slim margin of 43 percent to 41, voters think wealthy Americans reached their lofty status more by exploiting people and taking advantage of a favorable system than as a reward for hard work and innovation. Independents feel that way by a wider margin, with 45 percent viewing the wealthy as exploitative compared to 39 percent who see them as justly rewarded.

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But at the same time, Romney may have an opening when it comes to hammering government regulations. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president’s healthcare and financial reform laws as creating unneeded, burdensome regulations for the private sector, arguing that they are holding the economy back and should be repealed.

The Hill poll found that 52 percent of likely voters believe America would be better off with less government regulation of business, as opposed to 37 percent who believe more regulation is for the best. Independents also tended to favor fewer regulations on the private sector than more, 49 percent to 37.

Pulse Opinion Research conducted the poll of 1,000 likely voters on May 17 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

View the poll's crosstabs here.