BOCA RATON, Fla. — One candidate is worth up to $250 million, ran a private equity firm and plans to build an elevator for the cars at his beach house. The other is the former head of the Harvard Law Review who became a best-selling author and millionaire and now lives in the world's most famous mansion — 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Just don't expect Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama to embrace their elite status. In a campaign year when populism sells, they are trying to stick the rich guy label on each other, making clear that being wealthy and privileged is not necessarily a political asset when you're running for president in this uncertain economy.
Obama, making a middle-class pitch in wealthy Florida enclaves, opened a new push by Democrats on Tuesday to increase taxes on millionaires, emphasizing a fight with Republicans. The proposal stands little chance of passing in Congress but serves as a stark general election contrast with Romney.
"We've got to choose which direction we want this country to go," Obama told a boisterous audience of students at Florida Atlantic University. "Do we want to keep giving tax breaks to folks like me who don't need them? ... Or do we want to keep investing in those things that keep our economy growing and keep us secure?"
The former Massachusetts governor, who opposes the plan, has faced withering criticism from Democrats who try to paint him as a ruthless financier who has paid lower tax rates unavailable to typical middle class families.
On the other hand, Romney's team contends Obama's plan would raise taxes on small businesses, harming an engine of growth and job creation at a time when the economy needs it the most.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said Obama was the "first president in history to openly campaign for re-election on a platform of higher taxes," and the Republican National Committee called the idea of higher taxes on millionaires a "political distraction" that would do little to cure the nation's debt problem.
Obama is pitching the "Buffett rule," named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, which argues that wealthy taxpayers should not pay taxes at a lower rate than middle-class wage-earners. Obama has proposed that people earning at least $1 million annually — whether in salary or investments — should pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes. Many wealthy people earn most of their income through investments, which is taxed at 15 percent, allowing them to pay a lower overall rate.
Obama's team and Senate Democrats have teed up the issue ahead of the annual mid-April deadline when many Americans file their income tax returns with the federal government. In addition to Obama's speech, Vice President Joe Biden plans to discuss the issue in New Hampshire on Thursday, and Obama's campaign is using social media to spread the message. Yet beyond tax policy, the Buffett rule serves as a touchstone in the contenders' fight to portray each other as the candidate of the elite at a time of 8.2 percent unemployment.
While both Romney and Obama are millionaires, there is a huge difference in their wealth. Presidential candidates have to disclose broad outlines of their holdings, but it's possible to discern only a wide range. Romney is worth $190 million to $250 million, according to the filings. Obama is worth between $1.8 million and nearly $12 million.
Democrats contend Romney's past as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital is a major weakness because he was paid to reorganize companies, a process that sometimes led to the elimination of jobs. Obama's campaign has repeatedly pressed Romney to release several years of tax returns, pointing to personal tax records that have shown investments in the Cayman Islands and a Swiss bank account. There have been no indications, however, that the investments were used to avoid taxes.
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