CHICAGO - With three weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, Saturday night's debate among the GOP candidates on ABC was the most-watched of the 2012 campaign season, with more than 7.5 million viewers tuning in - and the moment that stole the show turned out to be … a bet.
Once Mitt Romney offered to bet Rick Perry $10,000 that he had not changed his book regarding the individual mandate to buy health insurance, the moment instantly took on a life its own. From the debate site at Drake University in Des Moines to the Twitter-verse, the former Massachusetts governor's audacious wager was the only thing anyone was talking about.
With the start of primary season so close at hand, so much at stake in such a tight race and so many serious issues plaguing the country - an ailing economy, stalled immigration reform, the list goes on - how can a seemingly harmless wager dominate the political world for days afterward?
"I'm not surprised that something like the $10,000 bet Romney offered Gov. Perry is overshadowing everything else in Saturday's debate," said Craig Robinson, who heads up TheIowaRepublican.com. "We are in the midst of an entire campaign where personality has, for the most part, trumped policy."
Part of Romney's personality is that he does not have the type of blue-collar upbringing that so many politicians use to connect with voters. He grew up in Michigan, attended Brigham Young University, earned graduate degrees at Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School, and later made millions heading the private equity firm Bain Capital. Romney himself makes no bones about his wealthy background.
" I didn't grow up poor. And if somebody is looking for someone who's grown up with that background, I'm not the person," he said at Saturday's debate. "But I grew up with a dad who'd been poor and my dad wanted to make sure I understood the lessons of hard work."
Making $10,000 bets, though, play right into his opponents' arguments that Romney is not a candidate who can relate to the middle-class or be entrusted to help the middle-class recover from the country's recession.
"You just can't be more out of touch than Mitt Romney - and you can't have less understanding of what it's like to be middle class," said one senior Democratic strategist after Romney's debate wager.
On Monday the Democratic National Committee released a new web video claiming that Romney "just doesn't get it."
"Anybody that offers a $10,000 bet on stage during a debate, only has $100 bills in his wallet, is a multi-millionaire who jokes that he's unemployed and truly believes corporations are people - cannot possibly understand the lives of middle-class Americans," the ad said.
For Romney, the ad concluded, "$10,000 is chump change, and that's why he's out of touch 10,000 times over."
Romney's Republican rivals, too, attacked his wager.
"I was taken a little aback," Perry said in an interview on 'Fox News Sunday.' "Driving out to the station this morning, I'm pretty sure I didn't drive by a house that anyone in Iowa would even think about that a $10,000 bet was even possible, so a little out of touch with the normal Iowa citizen."
On Monday, Newt Gingrich - who has surged ahead of Romney in the polls - went after Romney's business background at a campaign stop in New Hampshire.
"I would just say that if Gov. Romney would like to give back all the money he's earned on bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years, then I would be glad to then listen to him," Gingrich said. "And I'll be you $10, not $10,000, that he won't take the offer."
Although he's made his millions, Gingrich's background - he was born to a teenage mother who was separated from his biological father - is starkly different from Romney's, as the former House speaker outlined at Saturday's debate.
"When I was young, we lived in an apartment above a gas station," Gingrich said. "I had relatives who were steel workers, others who were delivery men, some who worked in department stores. My dad was in the Army and we'd moved around, and he lived on the pay of a junior officer. It was fairly frugal, but you didn't feel desperate."
Romney, predictably, has been asked numerous times about his wager after Saturday's debate.
" After the debate was over, Ann came up and gave me a kiss and said I was great, and she said there are a lot of things you do well - betting isn't one of them," he told reporters Sunday after an event in Hudson, N.H.
"This was an outrageous number to answer an outrageous charge from [Perry], and it's been proven wrong time and time again, and he keeps raising it," Romney said Monday on Fox News. "I said, 'OK, let's put something outrageous there.' It's like saying, 'Hey, I'll bet you a million bucks X, Y, or Z.'"
While Romney was right that Perry was factually incorrect, the former Massachusetts governor may be left to rue his monetary gamble.
"In the overall scheme of things, I don't think that Romney's wager is that big of a deal. However, what it shows is that Romney is out of touch with every-day Americans," Robinson said. "While I don't think Romney was being serious, the fact that he has the means to actually bet someone $10,000 is what makes people think he is out of touch. In a political environment that is suspicious of big government, big banks, and big corporations, Romney's choice of words may alienate him from rank and file conservatives or those voters who agree with the Tea Party movement. This is very similar to comments made at the Iowa State Fair where he said that corporations are people. He may be technically correct, but his choices of words confirm to many that he's simply not one of us."
Stu Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said he believes Romney's wager will ultimately have only "minimal" impact, but for now it has given the GOP candidate's rivals "an easy shot" at him.
"Two days from now, we will be talking about something else," Rothenberg said. "Why has it become such a big deal? Because Romney's opponents figure that they can use it to focus on his wealth and portray him as a rich elitist who is out of touch with real people. Of course, everyone and his brother has probably offered to make that kind of bet - 'I'll bet you a million bucks' - which reflects certainty about the outcome rather than personal wealth. This is the kind of stuff that gets attention in debates. It's an easy sound bite, an easy shot. It's what most reporters and operatives are looking for. Plus in this case, it fits well with the media narrative."
"I think most people already know that Romney is wealthy," Rothenberg said. "That's not his big problem in the Republican race. It's the belief among conservatives that he isn't an authentic conservative."
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.