"Rick, I'll tell you what. Ten thousand bucks? Ten thousand dollar bet?"
It was over in a instant. But Mitt Romney's wager, made to rival Rick Perry in a testy exchange over health care during a televised Republican presidential debate, may haunt him as he fights to gain support before the bellwether January 4 Iowa caucuses.
To the Washington Post it was Romney's "$10,000 mistake," "a baffling decision" and evidence the candidate - viewed as a shoo-in until Newt Gingrich surged from behind in the polls - has a fatal flaw. The wager strikes a sour note as millions of Americans flounder amid economic ruin, public support for Wall St plummets, and grassroots dissent challenges the status quo.
His opponents have tried to paint Romney as an elitist multi-millionaire who is trying to buy his way to power.
This week's "money shot," which showed a youthful Romney and fellow executives at Bain Capital - the private equity firm that made him a multimillionaire - gleefully flourishing US$20 bills in 1984, only adds to that perception. His rivals are hammering home the case that greed is not good and that Bain Capital was exactly the kind of corporate raider, vanquishing US jobs for profit, that many Americans blame for their woes.
"That's the Democrat attack line. Romney is the 1 per cent. It's definitely a vulnerability in the general election," says Sean Trende, senior elections analyst with RealClearPolitics, alluding to the Occupy Wall Street anti-wealth movement's "we are the 99 per cent" slogan.
"He worked for a hedge fund," says Trende. "And nobody offers a friendly bet for $10,000. Five bucks maybe. Or 10. It reinforces the image of him being the 1 per cent."
Ironically, gambling is forbidden to Mormons. Which may help explain Romney's ineptitude.
Romney's protestation that he lived on US$110 ($142) a month as a Mormon missionary in France went nowhere as the $10,000 bet was cited as further evidence that the wealthy candidate - flayed for insisting "corporations are people," or for joking "I'm also unemployed" while talking to unemployed Floridians - was hopelessly out of touch with Joe Six-pack.
Romney has painted his rival as "extremely unreliable," and this has gained some support. A Washington Post-ABC poll this week had the two at a dead heat among Republicans, with 30 per cent each. Ron Paul got 15 per cent and the rest of the Republican pack scored single digit totals. President Barack Obama also strengthened his poll numbers.
Romney insisted his wager was as "an outrageous number to answer an outrageous charge" - that as Massachusetts Governor he had spawned the template for ObamaCare, hated by the right. But few were buying the candidate's spin.
"The debate showed he was having a bad night when he needed to win," says Jonathan Tobin, senior on-line editor at Commentary, a conservative magazine. "He did not. There's something about him that people just don't like. It's hard to put your finger on it."
The $10,000 gaffe reinforces the vague feeling among conservatives that Romney isn't like them.
A White House run is the ultimate gamble, and the most costly contest, in US politics. Candidates must look presidential, while also conveying the impression they would enjoy a beer with voters. Trivial missteps can prove fatal.
Democrat presidential nominee Senator John Kerry never recovered from perceptions he was effete after ordering a Cheesesteak with Swiss cheese while canvassing in a Philadelphia restaurant in his 2004 contest against George W. Bush. Michael Dukakis failed to look martial enough while riding atop a tank in the 1988 contest against former naval flier George H. Bush.
Romney's wealth itself isn't the problem. Republicans like rich candidates and, indeed, many strive to enrich themselves. That's the American way. Romney, the wealthiest Grand Old Party candidate, is worth up to $250 million, according to an August AP report, which also said Obama was worth $2.2 million to $7.5 million. Whether Romney is any more out of touch with the common man than his GOP rivals - Gingrich is hardly Joe Six-pack and was heckled by Occupy protesters in Iowa - is a moot point. But perception is everything in the debates.
It is one thing to be a wealthy candidate. It is quite another, says Tobin, to be seen as an elitist swell "who said $10,000 like he has $10,000 in his pocket".
Tobin also suggests the televised debates put candidates under the primetime microscope in a political reality show where they face being booted off.
Romney is the status quo candidate, a safe pair of hands the Republican establishment can live with. But his boardroom executive demeanour does not have the populist appeal of Gingrich.
The $10,000 mistake also suggests the candidate is deaf to the deeper currents roiling around the presidential race. As the US struggles with protracted recession amid doubts about the future, political activism challenges the status quo. The Occupy protests and a sense among voters that economic misery can be traced to the greed and malfeasance of the 1 per cent, has prompted frantic repositioning in Washington.
"The President is definitely trying to tap into that," says Trende, noting Obama is pushing an "I stand with the 99 per cent" pitch despite taking more Wall St money in 2008 than any previous incumbent. "The proof of the matter is that his approval ratings are atrocious, and they're really atrocious in swing states. So he has to find some way to get some heat going for his campaign, or he'll lose."
On the GOP side Obama's rivals are also cynically spinning events. Gingrich insists his US$1.6 million fee from insurance giant Freddie Mac was for historical advice, and not a lobbying profit, while Romney's bid to look like a regular guy runs to jeans and rolled-up shirt sleeves.
"I think the Occupy message will definitely be a plank [in the 2012 race], an unavoidable element in the debates and the conversation nationally," says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Centre for Responsive Politics.
"The candidates may wish or attempt to cast aside the concerns, but it will be hard to do so."
But while America's admiration for the rich may have waned following the crash of the go-go economy, fuelling anger at elites, the desire to sup at the top table remains potent.By Peter Huck