GOP, Democrats pounce, calling him ‘out of touch’
HUDSON, N.H. - Mitt Romney’s rivals in the presidential campaign sought to make a pivotal issue out of his vast wealth yesterday, charging that his attempt to bet Rick Perry $10,000 to settle a dispute during Saturday’s Republican debate showed he was out of touch with average Americans.
Perry, the Texas governor, had charged that Romney wanted to impose the individual mandate for health insurance that is a key part of the Massachusetts health care plan on other states. Romney denied it and challenged Perry to the bet. Perry declined to take Romney’s outstretched hand.
Romney’s off-the-cuff effort to wager an amount of money that equals a sizable portion of average American income quickly became the talk of post-debate analysis and spin. Even Romney’s wife, Ann, seemed to think it was ill-advised for a man whose wealth is estimated at up to $250 million.
“After the debate was over, Ann come up and gave me a kiss and said I was great,’’ Romney told reporters after holding a town meeting here yesterday. “And she said, ‘There’s a lot of things you do well. Betting isn’t one of them.’ ’’
Romney’s political opponents - both Democrats and Republican rivals - quickly used the bet to mock him for being out of touch with average voters.
“I was a little taken aback,’’ Perry said during an appearance on Fox News Sunday. “I’m driving out to the station this morning. I’m sure I didn’t drive by a house that anyone in Iowa would even think about that a $10,000 bet was possible. So, a little out of touch with the normal Iowa citizen.’’
Aides to another nomination rival, Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, also pounced on the comment, releasing a video replaying the moment. Democratic Party officials, meanwhile, sent out a video called “Out of touch’’ that mocked Romney’s bet.
The brouhaha over the bet also could undercut an argument that Romney has been making to portray President Obama as unconcerned with average Americans. Romney has criticized Obama for taking a vacation to Hawaii, and has a new line that, for Obama, “being hands-on in the economy means working on his golf grip.’’
Romney sought to control the damage after flying from Des Moines, where the debate had been held, to New Hampshire, where he conducted a town meeting at a VFW hall here.
During the meeting, one voter - declaring himself “an absolutely, unashamed Mitt-head’’ - asked Romney to recount a meaningful experience in his life. Romney answered by acknowledging his affluent life but also trying to show a more modest side of himself.
“You know, I grew up in a home with a great deal of affluence,’’ he said, referring to his upbringing as the son of George Romney, who had run American Motors Corp. and served three terms as governor of Michigan. “My parents had done very well, my dad had grown up poor, wanted us to work hard. But as an American, I had everything I needed.’’
He then talked of his Mormon mission to France, a place that, while not a “third-world country,’’ Romney said, required him to live under what today would be no more than a $600 monthly stipend.
“You know, you’re not living high on the hog at that kind of level,’’ said Romney, who rarely talks on the campaign trail about his two years trying to convert people to Mormonism in France. “So I lived with people in France who lived very modestly. A number of the apartments I lived in while I was there didn’t have toilets. We had instead little pads on the ground, you know how that works. There was a chain behind you with a bucket, it was a bucket affair. I had not experienced one of those in the United States.’’
He said in that “in some cases, there were buildings that had showers. You go in, you pay a couple of francs and you could get a shower.’’
“I said to myself, ‘Wow. I sure am lucky to have been born in the United States of America,’ ’’ Romney said. “I began to appreciate the freedoms and the gifts that come by virtue of having been in this country.’’
Amidst the controversy over the bet, it seemed little noticed that Romney would have likely won it, even if he was wrong on the politics for trying to make it.
Romney has said the insurance mandate that was a key component of the 2006 law he signed while Massachusetts governor could be copied by other states. But he has repeatedly argued that he does not support the same component in the federal health care overhaul signed by President Obama in 2010, because it imposes such a mandate on the states.
Independent fact checkers have generally deemed Romney correct, suggesting that Perry was taking his comments in the book out of context.
But the buzz wasn’t over the substance yesterday, but the amount that Romney attempted to bet. The $10,000 came off sounding like an easily available amount for Romney, a former leveraged buyout specialist with three homes.
Adding to the focus was that Romney issued the challenge to Perry, whose childhood home in Paint Creek, Texas, did not have running water.
Aides argued that Romney won the bet just on the results of the exchange: Perry backed down after his rival challenged him in stark terms over his statements.
But even in their response, they attracted attention to the atypical amount proffered by their candidate.
“I’ve asked people, ‘I’ll bet you a million dollars,’ lots of times,’’ said chief Romney strategist Stuart Stevens. “It’s a very human thing, to sort of try to finally get some guy to shut up who knows he’s not telling the truth. And guess what? It worked. Perry did shut up, and he did back down, because he knows it’s not the truth.’’
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