Just as he is presenting himself to voters in two Midwestern states as the son of a coal-mining family with strong ties to blue-collar America, Republican hopeful Rick Santorum has released four years of tax returns that show earnings hovering around US$1 million ($1.2 million) a year since leaving Congress in 2006.
While the wealth of Santorum, an ex-Senator from Pennsylvania, seems paltry beside that of Mitt Romney, whose front-runner status he is trying to usurp, it does not tally with the pick-up truck narrative that has helped him connect with religious conservatives. Among the more surprising details in the filing: Fox News paid him almost US$250,000 as a commentator.
A poll yesterday from the Detroit News showed Santorum leading Romney by 34 per cent to 30 per cent in Michigan, which holds a primary election at the end of the month.
The numbers will pile new pressure on Romney, for whom Michigan was meant to be a firewall. He was born in the state and his father, George Romney, served as governor there. A loss there next week to Santorum could be devastating.
The Santorum tax filings could be helpful to the Romney camp as it tries to brand Santorum both as a Washington insider and member of the grubby "K Street" lobbying club in the capital. While not registered as a lobbyist, Santorum has drawn a big portion of earnings in consulting fees for corporations, notably in the energy and medical sectors.
Santorum, who campaigned yesterday in Michigan and Ohio, which will be one of 11 states voting on Super Tuesday in two weeks, likes to stress his western Pennsylvania roots. But since he lost re-election to the Senate in 2006, he has settled in a four-bedroom house in Virginia close to Washington on 2ha, worth US$1.4 million in 2010.
Still serving as a senator in 2006, Santorum earned about US$165,200 annually. But his financial picture improved sharply on leaving and setting up his consulting company, Excelsior LLC. According to his filings he earned US$659,000 in 2007, US$952,000 in 2008 and US$1.1 million in 2009, before dropping slightly to US$923,000 in 2010.
Still, Romney will have to direct his fire carefully, not least because Santorum earns 4 per cent of what he takes in each year. The filings also show the Santorum family paying double the tax rate applied to Romney, whose effective 13.9 per cent tax rate is a sore point with many voters.
Most of Romney's income comes from investments - hence the lower bracket - while Santorum has actually worked for his.