Mitt Romney: Does it hurt him that he's a French-speaking rich guy?

Newt Gingrich thinks Mitt Romney’s linguistic skills are a big deal. Mr. Gingrich is hoping a new French-themed ad appeals to conservative voters in South Carolina.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns at the University of South Carolina Aiken, in Aiken, S.C., Friday.

Is it a problem for Mitt Romney that he speaks French? We mean that in the context of the presidential election, of course – not his ability to impress the cashiers at Au Bon Pain.

Newt Gingrich thinks Mr. Romney’s linguistic skills are a big deal, all right. The ex-speaker has a new ad up called, “The French Connection,” that does its best to link Romney to failed Democratic presidential candidates Mike Dukakis and John Kerry. One way in which it does this is to play the French theme, hard.

The ad’s background music is accordions, the kind of thing they use in the soundtrack of low-budget films to say “Paris at night.” It puts up the famous clips of Michael Dukakis in a tank, looking like a chipmunk, and John Kerry windsurfing. (Is windsurfing a French sport?) It ends with this line: “Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney will say anything to win, anything... And just like John Kerry, he speaks French too.”

Then there’s a quick clip of Romney saying “bonjour,” followed by him announcing his name in French.

First off, we’ll say that if Romney speaks French, it’s only barely. In the ad it’s hard to tell if he’s saying his name or ordering a croque monsieur.

But European links indeed are a bad thing, at least to many in the GOP base. Europe is the home of European social democracies, which is what President Obama wants to turn the US into, which is why he’s a socialist. (We’re just repeating the argument.)

You’ll hear “Europe” and “France” invoked as negatives by many speakers at the GOP convention later this year. Just wait.

Plus, to link a US politician to Europe is to say implicitly he’s not the sort of person you could sit down at a sports bar with and have a discussion about whether Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis should retire.

South Carolina has a much more conservative electorate than does New Hampshire. In 2008, 60 percent of South Carolina voters in the GOP primary described themselves as “evangelicals.” This year in New Hampshire, only 22 percent of primary voters described themselves as such.

So it is possible that the Palmetto State could respond to this negative ad. It is kind of pitched to their world view. But it’s also possible they won’t, since negative ads about Romney don’t seem to be hurting him in South Carolina. At least, they aren’t hurting him yet. There’s been lots of talk about the ads funded by a pro-Gingrich super PAC that hit Romney for “heartless” behavior when he ran Bain Capital, but so far Romney’s polls are holding up OK.

A new Rasmussen survey has Romney in the lead in South Carolina, with 28 percent of the vote, compared to Gingrich’s 21 percent. In the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls, Romney has dropped a couple of points in the state from his high, and Gingrich has turned up a bit, but Romney would still be rated a comfortable favorite.

But we did see today an interesting piece on another aspect of Romney, personally, that could be a problem for him down the line. That aspect is financial: He’s rich, and voters know it.

A long post at the polling blog, Monkey Cage, suggests that Romney is vulnerable to charges that he’s a member of what the Occupy folks call the one percent. Seventy-two percent of respondents to a poll conducted by George Washington University political scientist John Sides and UCLA’s Lynn Vavreck said the phrase “personally wealthy” described Mitt Romney very well. (Some 45 percent said it described Barack Obama very well.) Furthermore, 89 percent said that the phrase “cares about the wealthy” also applied to Romney. (Fifty-five percent applied that phrase to Obama.)

Now, that would not be so much of a problem if voters also thought that Romney cared about people like them. But in the Sides poll, only 41 percent of respondents agreed with that statement.

So here is the problem that Romney confronts. Americans perceive him as personally wealthy more than they do Obama. They perceive him as caring more about the wealthy, but less about “people like me” and the middle class, than does Obama.

In part, it is due to polls such as these that many analysts believe that attacks on Romney’s record at Bain are just beginning, and will only accelerate if he wins the nomination and faces a well-funded and rested Obama machine in summer and fall.

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