Its front-runner, Newt Gingrich, takes out half-million-dollar credit lines at the jewelry store Tiffany’s and crows about earning $60,000 speaking fees. Worse, he’s reportedly earned as much $100 million peddling influence in Washington at a time when many Americans blame government for delivering the country into its economic mess.
His chief rival Mitt Romney, meanwhile, born into wealth, has made a point of avoiding ties but still carries only $100 bills in his wallet (and rebuilds multi-million dollar oceanfront homes). And in a moment the former governor surely regrets, he flippantly offered Texas Gov. Rick Perry a $10,000 bet – a clip played endlessly on TV.
Romney’s and Gingrich’s ostentatious displays of wealth – embodying experiences alien to most people – aren’t necessarily representative of the rest of the Republican field, but one of the two are heavy favorites to win the party’s nomination. And their victory would neuter attacks that Obama’s life and values are out-of-step with average Americans.
“Given the two possible nominees, that’s not the most promising direction for (Republicans) anymore,” Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster. “It will remain alive with the Fox News audience, but I don’t know about the promise of attracting middle-of-the-road voters.”
Even Republicans acknowledge that line of attack will have less resonance in 2012.
“Calling him the arugula candidate only worked when he was an unknown quantity,” said GOP strategist Rob Collins. “I think American people have made up their mind after four years.”
Painting presidential hopefuls as callous to the hardships most citizens bear has a well-tread history in American politics: It helped topple a sitting president 20 years earlier, George H.W. Bush. Then Democratic nominee Bill Clinton argued that Bush was focused more on international affairs than a struggling domestic economy, a message amplified after the incumbent checked his watch after a debate questionnaire asked how the recession had affected him personally.
Far from simply playing defense on the issue, Obama might be able to use the elitist argument against Romney or Gingrich. That could help a president who’s connection to most voters has wavered of late: According to a CBS News/New York Times poll released last week, 59 percent of voters still view him as down-to-earth but 54 percent say he doesn’t share the public’s priorities -- a new high for that question.
Back when his nomination appeared inevitable, Democratic strategists considered Romney vulnerable in a general election because Obama could argue he represents the Plutocratic “1 percent” hurting the rest of the country.,
“That comment about the $10,000 bet just confirms it,” said Bill Schneider, a senior fellow at the left-of-center think-tank Third Way. “Romney is Mr. 1 percent.”
Gingrich, he added, is trickier to define because he wasn’t born into wealth. But the perception he earned money because of his connections to Washington will turn off voters who consider the country’s political system dysfunctional and corrupt.
The background of both men look like cat-nip to a presidential strategy, outlined by Obama last week, that argues Republican policies harm the middle class. Romney and Gingrich are unaware of to what degree their wealth has separated them from the experience of most Americans, said Bill Burton, who the Democratic outside group Priorities USA Action.