PHILIP ELLIOTT

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -President Barack Obama's approval rating among white Americans has fallen as they have watched him wade into the racially tinged dispute between a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer and a well-known black Harvard scholar, according to a poll released Thursday.

The July 16 arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. for disorderly conduct in his own home sparked a national debate over racial profiling and police conduct. The controversy intensified days later after Obama said police "acted stupidly" when they arrested Gates, who is a friend of his.

The poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama's handling of the Gates arrest, compared with 29 percent who approved. The poll also found the incident and Obama's reaction saturated the public consciousness. As many as 80 percent of Americans said they are now aware of Obama's comments on the matter.

The president's approval ratings fell, especially among working-class whites, as the focus of the Gates story shifted from details about the incident to Obama's remarks, the poll said. Among whites in general, more disapprove than approve of his comments by a two-to-one margin.

At the White House, officials brushed off the numbers. Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters he doesn't believe the premise of the poll findings and that no one there is worried about the falling numbers.

"Look, the president doesn't spend a whole lot of time focused on polling," Gibbs said. "The president isn't fixated on the ups and downs in polling. If we were, we'd have quit two years ago this summer, if ever even run for president."

The poll was conducted Wednesday to Sunday, July 22-26. Amongthose interviewed on Wednesday and Thursday, 53 percent of whites approved of Obama's job performance. This slipped to 46 percent among whites interviewed Friday through Sunday as the Gates story played out. Obama made his comments the night of July 22 a Wednesday.

In polling of racial minorities and Hispanics, Obama's approval with that group of respondents rose from 63 percent among those interviewed Wednesday and Thursday to 74 percent among those interviewed Friday through Sunday.

Obama's overall job approval in the poll was 54 percent, down from 61 percent in a mid-June Pew poll.

Among blacks, the poll showed Obama's overall job approval falling from 93 percent in mid-June to 85 percent in July. The drop was not as steep among whites, 52 to 48 percent.

White House aides had sought to play down the president's comment, but the subsequent outcry and constant commentary reached such a pitch that Obama acknowledged publicly that he should have been more diplomatic with his words.

"Over the last two days as we've discussed this issue, I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care," Obama told reporters on Friday when he surprised them in the White House briefing room to revisit the Gates issue.

Gates, who is black, was taken into custody by Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley, who is white, after Crowley accused him of disorderly conduct for protesting the policeman's actions in responding to a mistaken report of a possible burglary at Gates' home. The charges were later dropped.

White House aides said it became clear the matter was not going away.

So Obama made phone calls to each participant and invited them to join him for a beer at the White House. The meeting is set for Thursday evening.

Pew re-contacted 480 of the poll respondents on Monday, July 27, to ask them more questions about the Gates matter and Obama's handling of it. They also found that people are divided as to who should be blamed for the Gates arrest: 27 percent blame Gates and 25 percent Crowley. Another 13 percent of respondents say both or neither are at fault.

A separate poll said almost a third blame both the scholar and the sergeant. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 27 percent think Gates was at fault, 11 percent blamed Crowley and 29 percent said each was equally at fault.

The Pew poll of 1,506 adults was conducted July 22-26. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. For the re-interview survey of 480 adults on July 27, the margin of error is plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,011 people was conducted Friday through Monday. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.