Class warfare has broken out on an unlikely battlefield: the Republican presidential primaries. GOP candidates who had been ripping President Obama for populist attacks on prosperity are suddenly fighting over who can afford $10,000 bets and who ripped off whom while raking in big private-sector bucks.
Political analysts are warning that the entire conversation is a turnoff for voters who are looking for candidates with whom they can relate.
That is tough to find in the field of reported millionaires, who have spent much of the past week arguing over who earned their own money, who has retained the common touch while making bank — and who made their money through ill-gotten gains.
Rep. Michele Bachmann — with an estimated net worth of $1.3 million to $2.8 million — launched a focused attack on Newt Gingrich — with an estimated net worth of at least $6.7 million — saying the former House speaker used his political influence to pull in $100 million in business and to “bankroll his lavish lifestyle.”
The three-term congresswoman from Minnesota highlighted a report in The Washington Post that described how Mr. Gingrich went from buying $30 neckties and discount haircuts at Bubbles hair salon to racking up a half-million-dollar tab at a posh jeweler and insisting on flying aboard private charter jets.
“His offices are on the Rodeo Drive of Washington called K Street,” Mrs. Bachmann said over the weekend, likening Mr. Gingrich’s life as a “crony capitalist” in Washington to the ritzy Beverly Hills hub, where the rich and famous are known to shop for designer duds.
Also this week, former Sen. Rick Santorum — the poorest of the field with a net worth estimated at $880,000 to $1.9 million — cranked out a fundraising email that suggested the $10,000 bet that Mitt Romney offered Rick Perry at Saturday’s debate shows he is out of touch with voters, who aren’t in the financial position to be so willy-nilly about putting such a hefty wager on the table.
“Mitt Romney is a multimillionaire former venture capitalist, so we understand that $10,000 might not be a lot of money to him. But it is to us, and we are sure it is to most of you,” Mr. Santorum’s email read.
Mr. Romney — a former Massachusetts governor whose net worth is estimated to range between $190 million and $250 million — challenged Mr. Perry to the bet after the three-term Texas governor said that Mr. Romney deleted passages in his book “No Apology” to conceal his support of a federal national health care mandate.
Mr. Perry — with an estimated net worth of at least $1.1 million — declined the bet, saying he wasn’t a betting man. It’s a lucky thing: Independent fact-checkers said Mr. Romney would have collected.
Mr. Perry later told the Des Moines Register that he was sticking by his accusation, though he also said he doesn’t have $10,000 to wager and called the bet a “clarion moment.” “I’m kind of like, holy mackerel, that’s just a lot of money for most people, and I guess not for Mitt,” he said.
The bet also drew derision from bloggers, and state Democratic parties across the country sent out press releases calculating what $10,000 could buy for local residents. Mr. Romney’s team, meanwhile, tried to steer attention back toward Mr. Gingrich, with surrogate and former New Hampshire Gov. John E. Sununu raising Mr. Gingrich’s penchant for buying expensive jewelry for his wife.
“I think the only thing that will come out of that is it will remind people of a $500,000 outstanding bill at Tiffany’s,” Mr. Sununu said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Mr. Romney followed that up on Wednesday by describing Mr. Gingrich as “a wealthy man, a very wealthy man” during an interview with CBS News.
“If you have a half-a-million-dollar purchase from Tiffany’s, you’re not a middle-class American,” he said.
Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said it doesn’t make sense for millionaire candidates to be wrestling over who can afford to make $10,000 bets. “That is so far beyond the experiences of ordinary people as to be incomprehensible politically,” Mr. West said. “The politicians should seek to do a better job relating to people who have lost jobs or are having difficulty making ends meet.”
Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist, said that some mudslinging is expected in the nomination fight, though it is not helpful that Republicans are engaging in a “circular firing squad on this.”
“The rhetoric,” he said, “shows just how competitive the race is now.”
Less than weeks out from the start of the nomination contests, polls show Mr. Gingrich is running first nationwide and in three of the four states that host the first caucuses and primaries. The major contenders are scheduled to square off Thursday for the 13th debate of the campaign season in Sioux City, Iowa, where Mr. Romney is running second and Ron Paul, the 12-term congressman from Texas whose net worth is between $2.25 million and $5 million, is running third, according to a realclearpolitics.com average of polls.
Odds are, with 13.3 million people unemployed, the candidates will pick up where they left off in Saturday’s debate by taking aim at President Obama — whose estimated net worth is $7.3 million — and trying to assure voters that they come from meager beginnings, so they understand the struggles of the average voter in these economically tough times.
Mr. Gingrich said his family lived frugally and he lived in an apartment atop a gas station in Pennsylvania as a boy, while Mr. Romney said that his father grew up poor and instilled in him the lessons of hard work. Mr. Perry said “luxury really wasn’t in my lexicon” — as his family didn’t get running water in his house until he was 5 or 6 and his mother sewed his clothes until he went off to college.
Mrs. Bachmann, meanwhile, said she was born into a middle-class family, which fell into poverty after her parents divorced. To this day, she said her family remains “coupon clippers today” and still “go to consignment stores.” “I think it’s important for the next president of United States to be in touch with what real people struggle with across the country, and I have,” she said.
Hank Madden, chairman of the First Coast Tea Party in Florida, said the intraparty class warfare attacks are “an absolute turnoff” and that their personal stories of how they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps are interesting — but will “not sway my opinion.”
“I had two tours in Vietnam, and the Army taught me you don’t have to practice to be miserable,” Mr. Madden said. “Policy battles, that is what we want to hear.”