The buzz over Saturday night's Republican presidential debate in Iowa was mostly over Mitt Romney offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 that Perry had mischaracterized a passage from his book.
Texas Governor Perry first accused former Massachusetts Governor Romney of writing in his book that an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, which Romney supported in Massachusetts, is a model that other states should follow.
Romney said Perry was wrong and asked, “Rick, I’ll tell you what, 10,000 bucks? $10,000 bet?”
Perry looked surprised and responded, “I’m not in the betting business.”
Perry had made the same accusation in previous debates. Factcheck.org and The Washington Post had already previously noted that Perry is taking words from Romney's book out of context to make it sound like he wrote something that he did not write.
Nonetheless, the consensus among many pundits on Sunday was that the exchange hurt Romney. It reinforced the notion that he is so wealthy, they argued, he would be out of touch with the main concerns of average Americans, because most Americans do not have enough disposable income to place such a wager.
“I was taken a little aback,” Perry said when asked about the exchange on “Fox News Sunday.” “Driving out to the station this morning, I'm pretty sure I didn't drive by a house that anyone in Iowa would even think about a $10,000 bet was possible. So, a little out of touch with the normal Iowa citizen.”
“I think Mitt Romney made a mistake there because it was a false note,” Kathie Obradovich, a columnist for the Des Moines Register, said on ABC's “This Week.” “It is an indicator to people that he's not quite like us. The average median income in Iowa is less than $50,000 a year so a bet like that, even though it was an off-the-cuff thing, it's one of those false notes.”
Democrats have made it clear that they will use the moment to reinforce the perception that Republicans favor the wealthy and are out of touch with average working Americans.
Anita Dunn, former Obama White House communications director, said on CNN's “State of the Union,” “There's no doubt that last night you saw a revealing moment with Mitt Romney, … if you're going to talk about your character, then those little windows to your character, the $10,000 bet, …”
At that point moderator Candy Crowley interrupted to ask, “Rich people can't have character?”
“Oh, they have character,” Dunn answered, “but the question is, sort of, who are you, who are you for, and who are you going to stand up for.”
John Sununu, a Romney supporter and former U.S. senator from New Hampshire, defended Romney while also criticizing the current front-runner, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
“He used a figure of speech,” Sununu said. “The only thing that'll come out of that is remind people about a $500,000 outstanding bill at Tiffany's.”
Last May it was reported that Gingrich and his wife owed close to $500,000 to the jewelry store Tiffany.
Jake Tapper, senior White House correspondent for ABC News, made the point that he once made a $10,000 bet to a Democrat who said his party would control the House after the 2010 elections, but it was a rhetorical device rather than a serious gesture. “I know kinda what was going through Mitt Romney's head. I don't have the wealth that Mitt Romney has, but ... my point was, I knew I was right, put $10,000 on the line, and I think that's what Mitt Romney was trying to do.”
There was another moment in Saturday's debate that reinforced that Romney was raised in a wealthy family. The candidates were asked, via a Twitter question, “When was the last time you had a personal financial strain that forced you to not only give up luxury but also to cut back on necessity?”
All the candidates except Romney had personal stories to tell about the struggles they had growing up in a middle or lower class family. Romney answered, “I didn't grow up poor and if somebody is looking for someone who has grown up with that background, I'm not the person.”
The previous two Republican presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, were also raised in wealthy families. When George H. W. Bush ran for reelection in 1992 during an economic recession, his perceived inability to relate to the struggles of average Americans was a liability. In one particularly damaging moment in the campaign, Bush was visiting a grocery store and expressed awe at the price scanner at the checkout, which he had never seen before. Bush lost that election.