Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson have begun casting Republican rival Mitt Romney as a scion of the upper class, contrasting him with their more humble roots in hopes of undermining the richest candidate in a well-off group.
"Our founding fathers had a brilliant, really revolutionary idea that the people elected would not represent the elite, but would represent the ordinary," Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, said at a debate in Iowa this week, a subtle poke at the former Massachusetts governor.
Thompson, a lawyer, actor and former senator from Tennessee, was more direct, saying: "My goal is to get into Mitt Romney's situation, where I don't have to worry about taxes anymore."
Romney, worth between $190 million and $250 million, took issue with that comment. But both presidential opponents already had planted the idea with Midwestern voters that Romney lives a life of wealth and privilege.
The populist pitches mark a shift for Huckabee and Thompson, two Southerners who, while starting their lives in families of modest means, now live comfortably, if not lavishly.
Both are playing the class card against Romney — essentially telling Iowans that unlike him, "I am one of you, and I will speak for you" — as polls show a competitive race just three weeks before the Jan. 3 caucuses that lead off the state-by-state GOP nominating fight.
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, has come from far behind the pack of candidates to seize the GOP lead in Iowa. Romney, the front-runner for months, is fiercely challenging him to gain ground back. Thompson trails both and is hoping to benefit from daily skirmishing between the two.
In Muscatine on Thursday, Romney dismissed the jabs from Huckabee and Thompson, saying he didn't believe voters choose their president based on "the pocket book" of a candidate.
"We've had great presidents of different economic status from the Bush family and the Reagan family and others. So I don't think an appeal to the differences in income is a successful political strategy," he told reporters.
Indeed, the class arguments may not hold much weight.
For starters, the country hasn't shied away from electing men born into wealth, such as Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John F. Kennedy. And neither Huckabee nor Thompson is struggling to make ends meet like many Americans.
Some polls suggest most people don't really resent the rich; they just want to join them.
However, two-thirds of people in a Gallup Poll in April said the distribution of money and wealth in the country is not fair, and only a third of people in a Gallup Poll in November 2006 said they'd be happier if they were rich.
Class warfare has marked the Democratic presidential race all year.
John Edwards — who goes home to a 28,000-square-foot North Carolina estate when he's not campaigning — complains about the lack of attention to the "two Americas" that separate the poor from the rich. Hillary Rodham Clinton — a senator and former first lady — says it's OK for her to accept lobbyist donations because it keeps her in touch with the issues of the working class.
The issue emerged in the Republican race during a debate Wednesday in Johnston, Iowa, near Des Moines.
Given the chance to make a 30-second statement, Huckabee said the president should not represent "a ruling class" but "a servant class."
"I can tell you that it's a long way from the little rent house I grew up in to this stage. I'm still in awe that this country would afford kids like me the opportunity to be a president. I'll try not to forget where I came from and where this country needs to go," he said.
The former Arkansas governor frequently spins the tale to voters of his cash-strapped upbringing in the little town of Hope, Ark. But he's hardly a pauper these days, and used a gift registry to help furnish his new home after leaving the governor's mansion where he lived for 10 years. He made nearly $75,000 as Arkansas governor plus a pension and also has brought in $300,000 in book sales, royalties and honoraria. He has between $331,000 and $815,000 in investments, and tens of thousands of dollars in savings and stocks.
Thompson made his tax-bracket remark as he answered a question about taxes.
In his Southern drawl, he always reminds voters of his early small-town boyhood in tiny Lawrenceburg, Tenn. However, during his eight years in the Senate, he made the rounds on Washington's exclusive party circuit, and he spent more then a decade in Hollywood circles while he starred in TV shows and big-screen films. He made millions as an actor and now lives in a Washington, D.C., suburb.
Unlike the two of them, Romney has a privileged pedigree, having grown up in tony Bloomfield Hills, Mich., as the son of a former governor and chairman of American Motors. After leaving home, Romney attended Harvard law and business schools, and quickly earned millions of dollars as a venture capitalist. He has three homes, a colonial in Belmont, Mass., that has a tennis court, a lakeside house in Wolfeboro, N.H., with a boat house and stables, and a wood-beamed ski house in Deer Valley, Utah.
He glosses over all that as he campaigns, mindful that much of the country probably can't relate.
Despite his background, Romney says his policies on immigration, spending, and health care could appeal to those in the middle class and below.
"I'm proud of the record that I have in making the difference in the lives of everyday Americans," he says.