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Mitt Romney’s taxes: Too exotic for prime time?

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Tax returns released late Monday night by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney reveal that he made lots of money — $42 million or so — in the past two years.

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney delivers a speech at the National Gypsum Co. on Jan. 24 in Tampa. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But the raw amount of money isn’t really Romney’s problem. Rather, it’s the exoticness of his finances that present the bigger hurdle for him. (And, yes, we realize the irony of Romney, who has made a political living on being the most vanilla of politicians, having a potential problem with exoticness.)

What do we mean by exotic? Simply that Romney’s tax returns make clear that his financial life is far different than that of the average American.

To wit:

* Romney made no wages in 2010 or 2011, deriving his entire income from capital gains, interest payments and stock dividends. Average Americans make the vast majority of their income via wages.

* Romney donated $7 million to charity over the past two years, including $4.1 million to the Mormon Church. While it’s hard to do anything but commend Romney for his charitable giving, the amount he gave to the church is not familiar to most Americans.

* Romney had a Swiss bank account. Yes, it was closed in 2010, but the very idea of a Swiss bank account reeks of “otherness.”

* Romney has foreign investments in places such as Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands, both of which are well known tax havens. While Romney has insisted he pays the exact same amount of taxes in these accounts that he would if they were based in the United States, that’s beside the point. For most voters, the idea of accounts in places such as Luxembourg and the Caymans is decidedly odd.

With no other smoking guns — at least not yet — in the Romney tax returns, our guess is the exoticness of the former Massachusetts governor’s finances are what made his campaign so hesitant to release them.

Remember that Romney repeatedly stumbled in the two debates last week when asked about his tax returns and, even in last night’s gathering, he seemed uncomfortable talking about them.

“You’ll see my income, how much taxes I’ve paid, how much I’ve paid to charity,” Romney said in Monday night’s debate. “I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”

The tax returns speak to a broader Romney problem: convincing average people that he is like them or, at the very least, can understand their lives in some meaningful way.

Romney’s background — his father was a governor and ran for president — is different than most people. His religion — roughly 2 percent of Americans are Mormon — is different than that of most people. And his wealth — as evidenced by his tax returns — is different than most people.

That said, Romney’s main rival — Newt Gingrich — also has a complicated financial life, and almost no one would describe the former House speaker as a man of the people.

And, in a December Washington Post/ABC News poll, 21 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said Romney best understood the problems of people like them — the highest number of any of the GOP candidates. Of course, Romney also held an 18-point lead in the primary ballot test in that poll — meaning that his numbers across the board were quite high.

The simple fact is that there is nothing more dangerous in politics than “otherness.” ( John Kerry’s windsurfing, Michael Dukakis in the tank , John McCain’s inability to remember how many houses he owned, George H.W. Bush and the grocery scanner.) People voting for president want to feel like their leader “gets” them; the vote for president is a far more personal vote than the vote for House or Senate, for example.

Romney already struggles with connecting to people. His rivals — in the primary and if he becomes the Republican nominee — will do everything they can to paint him as exotic, other, different.

That’s the real political danger for Romney in his tax returns.

© The Washington Post Company