The other day, Mitt Romney claimed that he’s “not concerned about the very poor,” a clumsy way of arguing that the middle class, not the least fortunate, are the ones who have suffered most from the recession and would be the primary focus of his presidency.

The truth is that if this argument is intended as a class-based dog-whistle appeal, it could hold a lot of attraction to Americans.

A new National Journal poll finds that a 51 percent majority agrees that the middle class is “suffering the most” from the slowdown, versus 45 percent who say the poor have been hurt most. And speaking of the dog-whistle aspect of this, the poll also finds that 53 percent say they are most concerned that “the government taxes workers too much to fund programs for people who could get by without help.”

But look what happens when Americans are asked whether specific programs should be cut:

Larger version here. Huge majorities say Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid should not be cut at all to help reduce the deficit. A majority, 51 percent, even wants food stamps and housing vouchers to be spared any cutting.

Also critical: The public isn’t buying the argument that entitlements are the problem. Just 3 percent say the biggest reason we’re facing large deficits is spending on the elderly, while a 46 percent plurality blames this on the fact that “wealthy Americans don’t pay enough in taxes.”

Which may explain this finding: “Asked whose federal budget plan they expected to more closely reflect their priorities, 47 percent of adults said Obama while just 37 percent picked congressional Republicans. ”

Scrambling the politics of this is the fact that the safety net is increasingly taking on a role not just in protecting the poor, but also in maintaining the middle class. In a Sunday piece, the Times reported that “the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits.” This creates a very interesting context for the battle that’s about to unfold.

As Jonathan Cohn noted today, the looming budget battle will frame the coming campaign as a battle over priorities. While it’s true that by flirting with the idea of deep Medicare cuts has perhaps compromised the Democratic Party’s reputation as the number one defender of the safety net, the fact is that Mitt Romney has embraced Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare as we know it, which will again be debated in Congress this year. Meanwhile, Obama’s budget — and campaign message — are all about deferring deficit reduction in order to preserve the promises at the core of the existing safety net.

And when the American people are focused on the specifics, the latter priorities are the ones they seem to favor. Let’s hope Congressional Democrats don’t forget this when the Sirens of Austerity start singing to them again.