The trouble with Romney's riches

Displays of wealth can ruin a presidential candidate. So could pictures of the Republican first family at their $8m estate cost them dear?

Sensitivity may not be the strong suit of Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger in the US presidential derby, and he is perhaps not the best student of campaign history. Doesn't he remember the grief that was given to John Kerry, the Democratic candidate in 2004, when he was caught kite-surfing off the coast of Massachusetts? Out of touch, elitist, snob, his critics immediately cried. He went on to lose.

In the parlance of election punditry, Mr Kerry was guilty of awful optics. It may be a Massachusetts thing. Mr Kerry is a US Senator from the state and Mr Romney is a former Governor. No one was more hurt by a single image than Michael Dukakis, also a former Massachusetts Governor, who attracted ridicule as the 1988 Democrat nominee when he posed for the cameras in a tank with an oversized helmet and just looked goofy.

Today, the country will witness Mr Romney and members of his family march in a Fourth of July parade in the summer resort of Wolfeboro on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. There won't be much to fault in that. Americans love Independence Day parades.

But it is the other newsreels from New Hampshire that at first glimpse seem to jar. As most Americans cut back on holiday plans, Mr Romney has been having a very nice time in his $8m (£5m) 13-acre estate on the aforementioned lake, taking his jet skis out from the boathouse (itself valued at $630,000) and leading the grandkids on treasure hunts. Has his campaign got careless? Or is this meticulously calculated?

Mr Romney is hardly the first candidate with money. But you would think that he would have some tact. During the primary campaign earlier this year he famously dropped clangers like noting in Detroit that his wife, Ann Romney, has a "couple of Cadillacs" and then saying at a speedway track in Florida that he doesn't really follow racing but has a few friends who own teams.

There is family pride in the equestrian success, meanwhile, of Ms Romney, who was encouraged by her doctors to take up riding in 1998 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She has bought horses since then, and very expensive ones, too. One, named Rafalca, will be competing in the London Olympics dressage events. How many voters even know what dressage is?

That he has a potential problem here has not escaped his advisors. Neighbours in the upscale La Jolla suburb of San Diego have been grumbling about Mr Romney's plans to add on to the beachfront home he owns there; they include installing a lift for his cars.

But if the risk is being called out of touch with ordinary folk, it is not even just about money, it's also about lifestyle. When it comes to the rituals of summer, the Romney clan does not behave like the rest of us. Theirs is a summer canvas that might have been sketched by Norman Rockwell.

We know some of the details thanks to The Washington Post. Attendance at the annual summer retreat at the Lake Winnipesaukee house is obligatory for all; none of his five sons can duck out – or their wives and kids. Whilst they are there, the adults are conscripted to take part in the "Romney Olympics", a highly competitive series of races and tests that include swimming, biking, hanging on to poles (endurance) and even hammering nails into planks of wood.

But wait. Keeping the press away from Lake Winnipesaukee is not what the campaign has been doing this week. On the contrary, it seemingly fed the "Romney Olympic" details to the Post even supplying one of the sons, Tagg Romney, for an interview. It made no attempt to keep reporters at bay or repel the waterborne paparazzi who snapped the candidate clinging to his wife on a jet ski and grinning madly.

Carelessness, on closer inspection, this is not. The voters know by now that Mr Romney has money. Indeed, his success as a businessman, as founder of the private-equity firm Bain Capital, lies behind his central campaign promise: to be a better steward of the economy than Barack Obama. "Everyone knows he is wealthy," Larry Sabato, director of political studies at the University of Virginia, said, adding that Democrats should be wary of trying to make a John Kerry moment out of one jet ski outing. Mr Obama has in the past has taken holidays on Martha's Vineyard.

If being rich is not such a problem, being impenetrably stiff is. So this is really what Mr Romney's Fourth of July optics are about. They are not an accident but are clearly aimed at overcoming what might be called his "human deficit". The campaign wants voters to see the father, grandfather and family man. Everyone and everything else in the news bulletins are props and extras in this push to make the candidate Mr Niceguy.

"They are trying to increase his likeability quotient and to look less like an automaton," Professor Sabato said. Whether anyone buys these Independence Day goods is another matter. But Professor Sabato said that by Friday it won't matter. That is when the latest monthly unemployment rate will come out. Who needs reminding that it is the economic data that will determine this election? "That number," Professor Sabato said, "will mean 1,000 times more than pictures of Romney on a jet ski."

Image problems: What hurt their election hopes

John Kerry's watersports

Photos of Kerry windsurfing and kite- boarding were used against him in George Bush's campaign videos.

Sarah Palin's wardrobe

The Republicans spent £150,000 on clothes and accessories for Palin's vice-presidential run in 2008.

John Edwards' $400 haircuts

Two haircuts cost Edwards' campaign $400 each during his Democratic primary fight in 2008.

John McCain's houses

Asked in 2008 how many houses he owned, McCain could not remember. The answer was eight.

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