As the Republican presidential race moves to Nevada, land of roulette wheels, craps tables and slot machines, where dreams of quick riches are often broken, Mitt Romneycontinues to struggle with the political consequences of the millions he's made through the sweat of his hard-earned investments.
The release of his most recent tax returns revealed how he successfully gamed the tax system by virtue of the low 15 percent capital gains rate, allowing him legally to avoid the 35 percent many other Americans pay. At the same time, his tin ear on the plight of the nonrich still plagues him, giving him a Marie Antoinette tinge.
No, Mr. Romney hasn't said, "Let them eat cake." But his latest observation -- "I'm not concerned about the very poor" because they have a safety net to take care of them -- threw him on the defensive again. He quickly added: "(W)e can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs that help the poor."
In a time of only creeping economic recovery, however, with millions of Americans unemployed and underemployed, the answer is not going to be very reassuring to those relying on a safety net already imperiled by Republican calls for reductions in such spending.
Few are likely to cast Mr. Romney, faithful son of missionaries who tithes 10 percent of his income to his church, as a heartless Scrooge. He did rather curiously say during one of the debates, though, that he had paid every cent he owed and not one cent more. Somebody once wisely said that if you take care of the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves. It certainly seems to have worked for Mr. Romney.
He hastened to explain after his latest gaffe that what he really meant was that his prime focus in his campaign for the presidency "is on middle-class Americans," not on the rich or the very poor. Politically, however, that focus makes him an echo of President Barack Obama, who ever since returning to the campaign stump has hammered on his claim to be the champion of the middle class.
Beyond Mitt Romney's verbal difficulty in squaring his riches with a sense of compassion for the poor, the whole matter has complicated the favorite Republican argument that its members are on the receiving end of class warfare waged by the Democrats. The implication is that the Dems resent the wealthy and are bent on arousing the poor against them.
But as one of America's richest men, Warren Buffett, has famously been quoted as saying, "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich, that's making war, and we're winning." Mr. Obama has been gleefully advocating the "Buffett rule," which holds that, in view of the fact that the man's secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does, anyone making $1 million or more a year should be required to pay an effective rate of at least 30 percent on their income.
As Mr. Romney defends himself on his hapless observation about not being concerned with the very poor, his always politically attuned rival, Newt Gingrich, has continued to play the class warfare card against Mr. Obama and now Mr. Romney as well. The Romney strategists have thrown it back at Mr. Gingrich, accusing him of attacking free enterprise itself in questioning the way Mr. Romney has made his millions in venture capitalism.
All this, and the prospect that the Republican nomination fight between Messrs. Romney and Gingrich will go on at least a while longer, can only hearten the Obama campaign. More significantly, in an argument between the president and Mr. Romney over which of them is looking out more for the middle class, the man Mr. Gingrich calls the Massachusetts moderate figures to have the harder sell.
In his strong Florida primary victory, Romney continued to court the most conservative elements in his own party to beat back Mr. Gingrich. A key question as the campaign moves past Nevada into Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona and Michigan this month is whether Mr. Romney pivots to more general-election themes, targeting independents as well as the GOP faithful, who polls show still have reservations about him.
Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.