Romney flip-flopping on bet?

Is Mitt Romney trying to distance himself from his $10,000 bet challenge to Rick Perry, or embrace it?  Yesterday in New Hampshire, Romney appeared to acknowledge that he made a bad move in the debate, relating a rather charming story about advice from his wife Ann after the conclusion of Saturday night’s debate:

Mitt Romney is not doubling down on his $10,000 bet.

Asked about the proposal he offered to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during Saturday night’s debate — a $10,000 pay off if Romney proved he hadn’t suggested a universal health care mandate would be suitable on a federal level in his book “No Apology” — Romney joked that his wife, Ann, was less than impressed with his bargaining skills.

“Actually 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,” Romney said during a press conference after a town hall this afternoon in Hudson.

Pressed as to whether he regretted making the wager or whether it was the largest bet he’s ever made, Romney responded, “That’s all I’ve got,” and laughed.

Or is he doubling down? This morning, however, Romney defended the bet on Fox and Friends as an “outrageous” answer to “an outrageous” argument from Perry:

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Monday admitted his offer of a $10,000 bet to Rick Perry during the last Republican debate was an “outrageous number” and tried to downplay the controversy over the challenge.

Romney called his bet to Perry “an outrageous number to answer an outrageous charge from Rick,” in an interview from Manchester, NH with Fox and Friends.

“It’s like saying, ‘hey, I’ll bet you a million bucks, x, y and z,” said Romney.

Was Perry’s charge “outrageous”?  It may have been questionable, but it was hardly outrageous.  Even Romney acknowledges that he promoted his health-care reform as a model for other states, regardless of whether his unrevised book said “country” or not.  That included an individual mandate for health insurance, and it’s the mandate that is the subject of criticism against Romney (and Gingrich for that matter).

The bigger question, tactically speaking, is why Romney bothered to engage Perry on the issue at all.  Perry is no threat at the moment to Romney’s election strategy, and that decision as well as the weird bet undermines Romney’s reputation as a smart, tactical debater.  Mary Matalin points out this problem to Chris Cillizza, who reports that the bet isn’t going over well:

Mary Matalin, an unaligned Republican strategist, said that while the $10,000 bet wasn’t an “implosion,” it did amount to “one more heavy brick in [Romney’s] political backpack”.

Matalin added that much of Romney’s strength in the race to date has been centered on his perceived superiority as a debater, making it easy for undecided Republicans to imagine him battling and beating President Obama on a debate stage. “The display of being bested by a candidate roundly dissed by the chattering classes cannot conjure up anything but scary images of Romney vs. Obama,” she noted.

The other longer-term danger for Romney in the $10,000 bet is that it reinforces a narrative already swirling in the political world: that his wealth makes him out of touch with the economic concerns of average folks.

No matter what the Romney people say, offering a $10,000 bet is, at best, somewhat odd. (You generally either bet someone $1 or $1 million dollars; anywhere in between seems weird and raises eyebrows.)

The bet then could have a similar effect to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) ordering swiss cheese on his cheesesteak or Martha Coakley suggesting Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan— crystallizing for voters that Romney just isn’t one of them.

Perry was no threat to Romney in New Hampshire, but the bet might very well cause him problems there, reports the Boston Herald:

Voter Jill Spencer of Hudson, N.H., said the blunder won’t go over well in the Granite State.

“It seems pretty outrageous and out of touch. People around here don’t have that kind of money,” she said.

Romney, who has sometimes struggled to appear connected to working people’s problems, attempted to wager the 10 grand in Saturday’s debate in Iowa after Perry claimed he had once suggested the Massachusetts health care law should be a model for a national plan. Critics attacked Romney — a multimillionaire venture capitalist — for tossing out the $10,000 figure like Monopoly money.

“This $10,000 bet was an in-kind donation worth millions to Newt Gingrich,” cracked Republican operative Todd Domke.

“Anyone watching the debate said to themselves, ‘When I talk to my neighbor and want to make a bet, it’s 10 bucks,’ ” Dennehy said. “It could be used as an illustration that Mitt Romney is out of touch.”

Romney should stick to the approach he took yesterday in New Hampshire rather than continuing to defend the bet.  It’s better to acknowledge an error and let it pass than to keep defending it and make it a topic of conversation.  Most of all, though, he should decide whether he’s going to defend it or not and stick to the decision.