By Ros Krasny
BOSTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is finding it tough to connect with lower-income voters in his own party, a record that bodes poorly for success in a potential general election contest with President Barack Obama.
A stream of memorable gaffes on the topic of wealth - Romney is one of the richest men ever to seek the presidency - has cast the former venture capital executive as out of touch with the concerns of working Americans.
"Romney is the most 'gaffe specific' candidate in recent memory. Typically candidates scatter their gaffes among different topics, but for Romney it's only when he talks about his wealth that he stumbles," said Dan Schnur, who was communications director for Sen. John McCain's 2000 primary campaign against George W. Bush.
Romney won the Ohio Republican primary on Tuesday but trailed former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum by 11 percentage points among voters making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year and by 6 points among those in the $30,000 to $50,000 category. A similar scenario played out in states that have voted so far in the Republican race to find a challenger to Obama.
"One thing we've seen in virtually all the exit polls is that Romney does less well, regardless of opponent, among lower income voters," said Charles Franklin, visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University Law School.
"That's happening within the Republican primary, rather than in the electorate as a whole. It could be expected to be an even bigger problem in the general election."
Lower-income Republicans are more likely to vote on social issues like opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, where Santorum scores highly. Some also have a suspicion of their party's northeastern business elites, said Franklin.
Ultimately, most Republican primary voters who opted for Santorum or former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich are likely to unite behind Romney in the spirit of partisanship, if he becomes the candidate.
GENERAL ELECTION VOTERS
But independents, whose support tilts the balance, arguably do not have the same type of "anyone but Obama" mentality of many Republicans.
Voters in the general election will also be less wealthy, on average, than those in the Republican primaries, making it essential Romney find a way to connect. In the 2008 general election in Ohio, for example, Obama won 52 percent, compared to 44 percent for Republican John McCain, among the 30 percent of voters who identified themselves as "independent." Obama lost the non-college white vote nationally, but by a smaller margin than his two Democratic predecessors. Only 23 percent of Ohio's 2008 general election voters had incomes over $100,000, well below the 30 percent of Republican primary voters this week in that range.
In Michigan, just 19 percent of 2008 general election voters had incomes of $100,000 or more, against 33 percent of voters in last week's Republican primary.
"Romney is going to need some working-class votes in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa and other states to win a general election," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
"As long as the economy is where it's at, he has a chance to win. But he needs to keep his message on the economy simple. Mitt has literally got to roll up his perfectly tailored sleeves and say, ‘I'll work hard for you.'"
With an estimated worth of some $250 million, much of it made as a corporate turnaround specialist, Romney might always be defined by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's 2008 quip that Romney "looks like the guy who fired you."
In his second bid for the White House, Romney has kept a tight focus on his jobs-and-the-economy message. But in situations where he has been forced to ad-lib, the gaffes about wealth have come regularly. Visiting the Daytona 500 car race in February, the former Massachusetts governor said he doesn't follow car racing closely but has "some great friends who are NASCAR team owners."
The owner of three homes, who is doing a multi-million-dollar knockdown at his La Jolla, California, oceanfront estate, also recently offered details of his car collection, including his wife's two Cadillacs.
Romney's offer during a December debate to have a "$10,000 bet" with then-rival Rick Perry was not quickly forgotten. Weeks later, in New Hampshire, Romney stopped for a photo opportunity at a gas station, pumping diesel into his campaign bus.
While there, he ogled a classic car owned by the gas station's manager and wondered if it was for sale. She shot back, "Sure. Ten thousand dollars."
Suggesting Romney probably has "deep-seated psychological reasons" for being uncomfortable talking about money, Schnur suggested confronting the issue head-on.
"The best thing for him might be to try to explain to voters why he sounds awkward - perhaps that he was brought up to sound modest and not claim to be better than other people. 'I'm going to sound awkward when I talk about it. I hope you will be able to look past the occasional awkward comment,'" Schnur said.
At this point, with a large lead among Republican delegates despite a voter enthusiasm gap, Franklin said Romney's best bet was to stay the course, adding that the gaffes - which he termed accidental truth-telling - about wealth reflect "the definitive nature of Romney, it's who he is." "When candidates try to shift in mid-campaign to patch over a weakness, they are rarely successful. Romney is not in a good position to pivot to a new set of issues. He's better off going back to his core strengths and hoping those are enough. Patience may win out in this case."
(Editing by Todd Eastham)