By Josh Lederman - 12/13/11 10:00 AM EST
After keeping his cool with an almost mechanical regularity throughout months of campaigning and the rise and fall of his political foes, Mitt Romney is finally getting his feathers ruffled.
A $10,000 bet Romney offered to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) during a debate on Saturday revealed the first major crack in the concrete veneer that until now has shielded his closely controlled campaign from the type of missteps that have dogged Perry, businessman Herman Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
“I admit, it’s shocking. They’re thrown a little bit,” said one Republican strategist. “The entire strategy of the campaign has been steady, steady. Let everyone come up and down around you, and when the dust settles, the steady candidate wins. Now it’s settled, and it’s not the case.”
The momentary spikes in the polls that a handful of other candidates enjoyed rarely seemed to rattle Romney, whose characteristically calculated approach to risk gave better odds to the other candidates flaming out on their own accord than to Romney thumping them with something that could come back to bite him.
But with Gingrich leading Romney in polling of three out of the four early voting states — Iowa, South Carolina and Florida — plus gaining on Romney’s lead in New Hampshire, the former Massachusetts governor seems knocked off his game.
And for a candidate who has fought diligently against the perception that he doesn’t relate to working-class America, the debate controversy offered both Democrats and his Republican opponents a silver-platter opportunity to fan the flames.
The debate moment came after Perry accused Romney of altering part of his book that said he supported health insurance mandates. Romney, speaking off the cuff, offered to bet Perry $10,000 that Romney had made no such alteration.
But the cavalier wager of such a large sum was immediately seized on as an opportunity to portray Romney as elitist and out of sync with the real-world challenges facing American families. He is worth up to an estimated $250 million, according to candidate disclosure reports.
“To me he was getting emotional on a subject matter right there in the debate and he was being pressed like he was wrong,” said Timothy Fong, a psychiatrist and expert in gambling addiction. “It tells me that this guy, you know, lost his cool.”
Democrats, best positioned to paint Romney as out of touch with middle-class Americans, had a field day reacting to Romney’s debate wager, mocking him in Web videos and soliciting suggestions on Twitter about what $10,000 could buy in the “real world.”
The Democratic National Committee produced a fake $10,000 bill with Romney’s face in the center, hoping to draw as clear a contrast as possible between President Obama and the man whom general-election polls show poses the biggest threat to a second Obama term.
“This is a blindside for him. He really doesn’t understand what people go through in their everyday life, because he is a millionaire 200 times over,” said Maria Cardona, a veteran Democratic strategist.
Cardona said other snippets during the campaign have hinted at this weakness. She pointed to comments Romney made about corporations being people and the foreclosure market needing to bottom out in Nevada instead of the government intervening to save troubled mortgage-holders.
“Anyone who’s studied political science knows when a voter goes into the booth, at the most basic gut level, they’re going to pick someone who understands what they’re going through,” she said.
Romney’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
But Democrats haven’t been the only ones taking advantage of the opportunity to knock Romney while he’s down.
Perry called the offer of a wager “out of touch” and said it caught him off guard. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) supporters took to Internet message boards to point out that Mormonism, Romney’s religion, prohibits gambling. Some went as far as to say he had violated Iowa state laws pertaining to gambling and might have committed a felony.
And pressed by Romney to give back the money he was paid by federally backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac, Gingrich on Monday agreed to consider doing so — if Romney would give back the money he made as an investor running companies that sometimes laid off workers to save costs.
“And I’ll bet you 10 dollars, not 10,000, that he won’t take the offer,” said Gingrich, according to CNN.
Romney surrogate Tom Stemberg, who founded Staples, shot back with a retort geared at flipping the tables on the “out of touch” smear and re-establishing Romney as the candidate of discipline and values.
“Newt Gingrich comes from the world where politicians are paid millions after they retire to influence their friends in Washington,” Stemberg said in a statement. “Mitt Romney comes from the private sector, where the economy is built by hard work and entrepreneurial drive.”
Daniel Strauss contributed.