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Romney wrestles with how to turn wealth into political asset

 

Mitt Romney is worth as much as a quarter billion dollars. And Democrats are taking every opportunity to remind voters of that fact, and to portray the presumptive Republican nominee as hopelessly out-of-touch with the struggles of everyday Americans.

A nationwide debate on fairness led by President Barack Obama in recent weeks involves a subtext meant to remind voters of Romney’s wealth. It coincides with today’s deadline for Americans to pay their taxes and poses a tricky challenge for the Romney campaign – how to turn that personal economic success into a political virtue while avoiding the perception that the candidate is detached from small-town financial reality.

By demanding that Romney release his tax returns for the past decade, or by pushing for the authorization of the Buffett Rule – the proposal that the wealthiest households pay a minimum 30 percent tax rate – Democrats have fought to define Romney early in his general election battle against the incumbent president.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer said of Romney in a conference call on Monday organized by the Democratic National Committee, “He doesn't want to reveal what his personal income is in any great detail, but it relates to the fact that his plans favor people just like himself, who don’t have to struggle … .”

Romney must figure out a way to battle back against what has become a dog whistle campaign – Democrats and the media have been especially attentive to any cue that reminds voters of Romney’s immense personal wealth. The former Massachusetts governor might push back by turning that argument around, and emphasizing that his proposals would enable others’ success.

Mitt Romney has tapped Beth Myers, a trusted aide and the manager of his 2008 presidential campaign, to head up his search for a running mate. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

“He's going to have to make an argument that his proposed policies are designed to give people an opportunity to attain the same level of success that he has,” said Steve Schmidt, who headed Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Though the general election race has only begun in earnest, there is evidence to suggest that Romney must dig himself out of an early hole in terms of perception. Thirty-three percent of Americans said in a CNN/ORC poll released Monday that Romney is more in touch with the problems facing the middle class, versus 51 percent who said that of Obama.

Romney has blamed his opponents for essentially demonizing his success, a strategy that he says is divisive in nature.

But the Obama campaign has been aided by moments when Romney has appeared awkward in addressing his personal wealth, from noting his wife’s two Cadillacs, to reports about a car elevator being installed as part of an expansion in one of his homes.

DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse summed it up in Monday’s conference call:  “Car elevators – I don’t see most Americans building car elevators.”

Romney’s efforts to combat that narrative center on his private sector resume, which he argues enable him to better understand the economy.

"I can connect with America's economy because I know it," the former Massachusetts governor told ABC on Monday. "I don't connect with President Obama because he doesn't understand the economy; he doesn't understand what it takes to get jobs for the American people."

Sen. John Cornyn, R- Tx, gives his thoughts on the procedural vote on the Buffett Rule.

The challenge for the Republican candidate lies in whether Romney can personalize some of the macro-level factors like the price of oil, unemployment, or the size of the national debt.

“There's a sense that they have to understand [voters’] everyday lives,” said Luke Frans, the executive director of the Republican-leaning opinion research group Resurgent Republic, of the challenge facing Romney and Obama alike.

“The national debt may be $15 trillion, but what does that mean to you when you have to worry about next month's bills?” he said. “The flip side to that is, do they feel that 36 months at above 8 percent unemployment is real progress?”

What’s more, the candidate’s speech to supporters at a top-dollar fundraiser last weekend suggested that there may be instances in which the wealthiest voters might be asked to contribute more as a result of tax reform in a Romney administration.

He suggested, for instance, that he might eliminate a mortgage deduction for second homes as part of a tax reform package. While Romney has said the elimination of deductions and loopholes – especially for the wealthy – would be used to pay for further cuts in tax rates, his plan involves a miniature version of the soak-the-rich rhetoric that might defuse some of the Obama campaign’s attacks.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, (R-MN) discusses reforming the tax code and reviewing tax plans from both sides of the aisle. Also, a look at the impact of entitlement programs on the federal budget.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a longtime advocate for better Republican efforts to reach the middle class and a surrogate for the former Massachusetts governor, also urged Romney to not shy away from his work at Bain.

“Mitt Romney should embrace the fact that one of his strengths is that he has been successful in the private sector,” Pawlenty said Tuesday on CNBC.

And short of that, Romney might take solace in the idea that a candidate’s personal wealth has seldom been made into a central issue in a presidential campaign.

“There's never been a successful presidential re-election on the basis of, 'Vote to re-elect me because my opponent's wealthy,'” Schmidt said. “The bottom line reality is that if the president had been able to do the things he had promised to do, he wouldn't be running a re-election campaign attacking Mitt Romney's wealth.”