Mitt Romney was accused of being out of touch with working-class America on Sunday, after the Republican presidential candidate tried to make an impromptu $10,000 bet during a TV debate.
The slip, at the time of high unemployment and a growing poverty divide, could damage Romney three weeks before the first of the Republican contests in Iowa.
His critics said the issue was not that he offered the bet but the size of it, consolidating Romney’s reputation as a very rich man seeking to buy his way to power.
Even before the bet offer, Romney, one of the favourites to win the Republican nomination to take on Barack Obama in November’s White House election, had been slipping in the polls. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is now the front-runner.The gaffe came when a rival candidate, Texas governor Rick Perry, claimed Romney had supported national healthcare reform in a passage in his book that was excised from the paperback edition.
Romney – who brought in healthcare reform in Massachusetts that was similar to Barack Obama’s, in a move unpopular with conservatives – denied he supported the measure nationwide or that the passage had been in the first edition.
“Rick, I’ll tell you what: $10,000 bucks? Ten thousand bet?,” Romney said, extending his hand to shake. Perry, a Christian evangelical who may have a principled stand on betting or maybe because he was wrong about the book, declined.
“I’m not in the betting business but I will show you the book,” Perry said.
It was the first time that a bet has been offered in more than 50 years of televised political debates in the US.
Alice Stewart, a spokeswoman for another candidate, Michele Bachmann, told ABC, who hosted the debate: “For someone to go and throw around a $10,000 bet, just goes to show even more that he’s not the same level as the people of Iowa or the country.”
Bill Burton, who is helping to organise Obama’s re-election campaign, wrote on Twitter: “Not a lot of 99%’ers are out there making $10,000 bets.”
Romney has struggled to win over Republican voters, failing to get his poll support much above 25%, partly because of suspicion of his Mormonism among the Christian right but also because of his wealth. In the 2008 campaign, he spent $42m of his own money.
Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s press spokesman, tried to laugh the incident off, saying it was not a serious bet. “I’ve made bets with friends and family for $1m,” Fehrnstrom said. He added that Romney had made the bet because he knew Perry would not take it. “This guy was wrong. It was a phoney allegation.”
The Republican race has been one of the most mercurial in recent history, as candidates have emerged only to fade after a few weeks. Polls show two-thirds of Republicans are undecided, dissatisfied with the entire field or prepared to switch. On Sunday a poll gave Newt Gingrich double-digit leads in South Carolina and Florida.
Gingrich, as frontrunner, was the main target in the Saturday night debate in Des Moines, the 13th so far, with one more scheduled before Iowa. His rivals focused on his alleged work as a lobbyist, his three marriages and his views on the Middle East.
Who is the wealthiest of them all?
Mitt Romney: The wealthiest candidate: in his last financial disclosure, during his 2008 White House bid, he put his personal wealth at between $190m and $250m, most of it from his time in business. About $42m has to be deducted from that, the amount of his own cash spent on the failed bid.
Jon Huntsman: Although at the bottom of the polls, he is runner-up in terms of wealth. He listed his personal assets this year as between $15m and $66m, much of it from a chemical company set up by his father.
Newt Gingrich: His finances appear shambolic, with his assets changing dramatically from year to year. He earned $2.5m last year, mainly, he says, from speeches and books but also, controversially, from his own consultancies, which his rivals say are for lobbying, a charge he denies. His consultancies have earned an estimated $100m over the past decade.
Ron Paul: His assets are between $2.29m and $5.3m, based on his disclosure in the 2008 White House race.
Rick Santorum: His personal assets, based on his financial disclosure when he was in the Senate in 2006, put him in the range of $522,000 to $1.8m.
Michele Bachmann: She is worth $1m to $2.5m, mostly profits from a therapy clinic (where gay people can allegedly pray to be “cured”). A family farm brings in $5,000 to $15,000. She is carrying $350,000 in debts: a $250,000 mortgage and a $100,000 business loan.
Rick Perry: A spokesman for the Texas governor’s office put his wealth as of 2009 as $896,000, held in a blind trust. He has made his money mainly from buying and selling houses. He has debts of about $70,000, including a car loan for a Mercedes.