Republican candidate Mitt Romney, at a town hall in Charleston, S.C., is… (Richard Ellis, Getty Images )
One made a spontaneous $10,000 bet on live TV. The other charged up a storm at Tiffany & Co. And now, in a season of foreclosure, unemployment and an erosion of the bedrock American certainty that the best days lie ahead, two of the incredibly rich men who are leading the GOP presidential pack are sniping over which of their personal fortunes is worthier.
Ostensibly, as they battle for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have been sparring over who is better-positioned to represent the country's struggling middle class. It's a tough sell for both: Romney is a son of privilege who made a fortune in the leveraged buyout world, and Gingrich is an Army brat who leveraged his Washington insider status into substantial personal wealth.
But this week, they hit such an off note that it was almost possible to close your eyes and think they'd morphed into Occupy the GOP.
Here is Romney on Gingrich: "He's a wealthy man, a very wealthy man," Romney told CBS. "If you have a half-a-million-dollar purchase from Tiffany's, you're not a middle-class American." He also urged Gingrich to return to taxpayers the more than $1.6 million he earned from advising the quasi-governmental mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which Republicans blame for the housing collapse.
Gingrich's riposte: "If Gov. Romney would like to give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be glad to listen to him." (Bain Capital is the private equity firm Romney once ran.)
Even conservative icon Rush Limbaugh was taken aback.
"We've got two Republicans going after each other the way liberals talk about us, with this class-warfare business," Limbaugh said Thursday on his radio show. "So Romney's attacking Newt for being rich, and Newt's not that rich, and Newt's attacking Romney for being rich, and Romney is that rich. But it's usually Democrats that do that kind of stuff."
Gingrich may have a lot more to lose by lashing out.
Romney's wealth is a given, something he has tried to play down (an effort complicated by the cavalier five-figure wager he tried to make with Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a recent debate). But Republicans have been stunned by how much money Gingrich earns, and how he flaunts his newfound wealth, said Los Angeles-based Republican strategist Jonathan Wilcox.
"Romney will demonstrate in the campaign to come the good works and the admirable lifestyle that his success has brought him and allowed him to do," said Wilcox, who has not declared a candidate preference. "Gingrich is making the opposite argument, which is 'Can you believe how rich I got?'"
Romney, many political observers believe, brought up Gingrich's Freddie Mac income to score a calculated political point against the current front-runner.
"Freddie Mac and its evil twin, Fannie Mae, are everything that the partisan committed [GOP] voter hates: a government-subsidized entity that's gone bankrupt, bailed out by taxpayers and used its influence in Washington to buy years of protection," Wilcox said. (On Friday, six former Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae executives were charged with misleading investors about the agencies' exposure to risky subprime mortgages.)
By contrast, Gingrich's sarcastic slam on Romney for squeezing profits out of companies is probably not a winning critique in conservative circles.
"That is the nature of business, encoded in the DNA of every committed conservative," said Wilcox, who added that Gingrich's response reminded him that "when Newt is threatened or feels upstaged, he will reach for the first heavy object and he will throw it hard." (See: Rep. Paul D. Ryan's Medicare plan and Gingrich's complaint that it was "right-wing social engineering.")
Though all the rivals for the GOP nomination are securely in the top economic tier, Romney is by far the wealthiest, worth up to $250 million, according to disclosure forms. Gingrich is the third-wealthiest candidate, after former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Romney underplays his privilege and struggles to seem like a regular guy. Last week, he told voters in Hudson, N.H., that he had experienced privation as a Mormon missionary in France in the late 1960s, existing on little money and using old-fashioned squat toilets. He tweets about flying Southwest Airlines, eating fast food and staying at Holiday Inns when he can easily afford (to buy) the Ritz.
Gingrich, who reported earning at least $2.6 million in 2010, revels in his success. He has boasted of earning $60,000 per speech and has implied that he hardly needed the money he earned dispensing advice to Freddie Mac because he was "a national figure who was doing just fine," as he put it Thursday during a Fox News debate.
When his Tiffany account was revealed last spring, he was unapologetic: "We are very frugal," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation" in May. "We, in fact, live within our budget. We owe nothing."