HUDSON, N.H. — Ann Romney had a message for her husband when he walked off the debate stage in Iowa on Saturday night:
“There are a lot of things you do well,” she told him, after giving him a kiss. “Betting isn’t one of them.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney found himself on the defensive Sunday over an exchange in Saturday’s ABC News-Yahoo News-Des Moines Register debate. Romney had challenged Texas Gov. Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet to settle an argument over health care.
Perry, who declined the bet — “I’m not in the bettin’ business,” he told Romney on stage — tried to capitalize on the moment on Sunday to portray Romney, a multimillionaire, as out of touch with most voters. So did the Democrats and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr.
But on the campaign trail here Sunday night, Romney tried to defuse the situation with humor, recalling at a news conference what his wife told him when he came off stage in Des Moines.
When a reporter asked Romney whether $10,000 was the largest bet he had ever made, the candidate chuckled and said only: “That’s all I’ve got.”
Earlier, speaking to more than 100 voters at a town hall meeting in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Hudson, Romney reflected on a period in his life when he lived modestly.
A voter who identified himself as “an absolute unashamed conservative Mitt head” asked Romney to share a life experience that changed his worldview. For perhaps the first time in this campaign, Romney talked extensively about his time in France as a young Mormon missionary in the 1960s.
“As you know, I grew up in a home with a great deal of affluence,” Romney said. “Now France is not exactly a Third World country, obviously, but when we go there we live on our own savings and they had a limit — $100 a month from our savings.”
Romney said he had to pay for his clothing, food, rent and transportation on that budget. “You’re not living high on the hog at that kind of level,” Romney said, noting that it was about $500 to $600 a month in today’s dollars.
“A number of the apartments I lived in when I lived there didn’t have toilets,” Romney said. “We had instead little pads on the ground. Okay, you know how that works. There was a chain behind you with a bucket — it was a bucket affair. I had not experienced one of those in the United States.”
The crowd laughed as Romney used his arms to describe the chain-and-bucket toilet. He said he had no refrigerators, so he went grocery shopping before every meal. There were no showers or bathtubs in his apartments, either.
“In some cases, there were buildings that had showers,” Romney said. “You go in and you paid a couple of francs, and you could get a shower. We’d do that once a week. Or, if we were lucky, we actually brought a hose and we stuck it in the sink and we’d hold there with the hose and the big bucket underneath us in the kitchen and wash ourselves that way.
“And so,” Romney concluded, “I lived in a way that people of lower-middle income in France lived and said to myself, ‘Wow, I sure am lucky to have been born in the United States of America.’”