DUNEDIN, Fla.—If Mitt Romney wins the Florida primary, as polls here suggest he will, much of the credit will go to his decision over the past 10 days to relentlessly hammer Newt Gingrich for his ties to Freddie Mac, his ethics drama as Speaker of the House, and his subsequent resignation after the 1998 midterm elections.
"Speaker Gingrich, he's not feeling very excited these days," Romney told a crowd of several hundred people gathered at an outdoor pavilion here Monday, some of whom let out a mock "awwww" in response. "I know. It's sad isn't it ... He's been flailing around a bit, trying to go after me for one thing or the other. You just watch and shake your head. It's been kind of painfully revealing to watch."
But Romney's prospects in Florida have also been helped by his ability to neutralize—at least for now—what is probably his biggest liability heading into Nevada and other key voting states: His wealth.
No other subject seems more personally awkward for Romney, who has struggled to talk about the fact that he's one of the richest men in America. For months, Romney has sought to downplay his wealth and cast himself as more of an everyman who flies Southwest Airlines and stops along the campaign trail at fast food joints like McDonalds and Carl's Jr.
One top supporter who has known Romney for years but declined to allow his name to be used, says Romney has long been "uncomfortable" when speaking about money.
"He's rich. Everybody knows he's rich. It's not a secret," the supporter told Yahoo News. "But what I think what doesn't come across is that he's also modest. He doesn't like talking about his money, which is why this is has been such a difficult issue for him."
In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney's stump speech was filled with lines aiming to connect with average people—lines that did not always serve their intended purpose. In New Hampshire, Romney got into trouble when he spoke about knowing what it's like to worry about being fired.
His opponents—both Democratic and Republican—have seized on Romney's throwaway comments on the trail to paint him as out of touch with average voters. That includes his offer at a debate to bet Rick Perry $10,000, his argument that "corporations are people," and his suggestion, made as he was exiting a press availability in South Carolina, that the more than $374,000 in speaking fees he received in 2010 was "not very much."
In an interview with Univision last week, host Jorge Ramos's first question was about Romney's wealth.
"Governor, how much money do you have?" Ramos asked.
Romney, who wore an awkward smile, replied, "Well, you tell me, and I'll tell you."
When Ramos pointed out he wasn't running for president, Romney tried to dodge the question by pointing to forms he filed when declaring his candidacy.
"I actually disclosed in a financial disclosure statement all of the assets which I own, and I think the estimate in there is a pretty wide range, it's been widely reported, and my net worth is within that number and, frankly, it's not something…" Romney said.
"Within $250 million?" Ramos interrupted.
"Well, it's between a $150 and about $200 and some odd million. I think that's what the estimates are," Romney replied, suggesting he wasn't quite sure how much money he has.
He quickly added, trying to get on message, "By the way, I didn't inherit that … My parents gave me a lot of great things. They gave me the privilege of being born in this country, the privilege of having a mom and a dad that cared for me and taught me values. I'm a man of faith, as well, but when they passed away, what they sent to me I gave to charity and to my children."
"You inherited no money?" Ramos interrupted.
"Well, I inherited no money," Romney replied. "What my wife and I have, we earned, and we earned it by helping start businesses, by being successful in the businesses that I ran, and I'm proud of the fact that we were able to contribute in some small way to creating tens of thousands of jobs, actually over 100,000 jobs for middle income Americans."
Romney offered a more forceful defense of his wealth at a debate Thursday—after being questioned about attacks by Gingrich on his overseas investments, including holdings in the Cayman Islands and a bank account, since closed, in Switzerland.
Noting that his investments are in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest, Romney admitted he held overseas accounts but had paid full U.S. taxes.
"There's nothing wrong with that," he said. "And I know that there may be some who's try to make a big deal of that … But l think it's important for people to make sure we don't castigate individuals who've been successful, and … by innuendo suggest there's something wrong with being successful and having investments."
"Let's put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money," Romney went on to say. "And let's get Republicans to say, you know what, what you've accomplished in your life shouldn't be seen as a detriment. It should be seen as an asset to help America."
Romney's more forceful message came, perhaps not coincidentally, after he hired a new debate coach: Republican strategist Brett O'Donnell, a former adviser to John McCain and Sarah Palin, who had been working for Michele Bachmann's campaign until she quit the race.
Speaking in the spin room after the debate, O'Donnell was cagey about how the campaign was coaching Romney to speak about his personal wealth. But he called Romney's response one of the "strongest moments" of his campaign.
"No apologies… that's what America is about," O'Donnell said, paraphrasing Romney's answer. "Some of that is in the weeds for most people … and sure, there might be some people who don't relate, but making no apologies for success … For Republicans that ought to be aspirational."
Yet perhaps the most telling sign of how big a vulnerability Romney's wealth remains for him is that he has not repeated that defense on the campaign trail in recent days.
Romney has also dropped his awkward attempts to connect with voters—instead focusing much of his stump speech on attacking Gingrich and President Barack Obama.
The scrutiny of Romney's wealth is likely to increase in Nevada, a state where unemployment is at 13 percent—one of the highest rates in the country.
On Monday, the Gingrich campaign emailed reporters links to excerpts of stories about Romney's wealth, noting his worth while also linking to awkward gaffes on the campaign trail—including a stop in Florida last year where the candidate joked with a group of unemployed workers that he is "also unemployed." The email's subject line: "More troubling questions about Romney's finances."
But on the trail, Romney continues to try and be the average guy. On Saturday, while campaigning along Florida's Gulf coast, the candidate dropped by a McDonalds, accompanied by a New York Times photographer and a trailed by an ABC News crew.
He ordered a value meal with two burgers, no cheese, small fries and a Coke.
Read more coverage of the 2012 Florida primary at Yahoo News.
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