Mitt Romney is rich.

That much we know. But how his wealth — and how he acquired it — will play as an issue in the fall campaign (assuming that the former Massachusetts governor winds up as the Republican presidential nominee) remains very much up in the air.

View Photo Gallery: A look at former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s careers in business and politics.

Is Romney an American success story, the smart businessman who helped build successful companies like Staples and Sports Authority? Or is he the callous corporate raider, hollowing out companies to enrich him and his well-heeled friends.

How Romney’s wealth is ultimately perceived by voters in the center of the American electorate will play a critical role in determining whether or not he can beat President Obama.

Of late, Romney hasn’t helped himself much in framing the wealth debate in his favor.

His halting, awkward answer on whether he would release his tax returns during a Republican presidential debate on Monday night in South Carolina ensured that he would get more follow-up questions on the subject.

Those questions came today when he committed — finally — to releasing his tax return this spring and acknowledged that he was likely to be in the 15 percent tax bracket, a rate well below what many people who have far less personal wealth than Romney pay.

In that same press conference, Romney said he earned “not very much” in speaking fees — a claim Democrats immediately pounced on, noting that Romney had made $374,000 on speeches.

The political problem for Romney in all of this is not that he’s wealthy. (President Obama is quite wealthy in his own right thanks to the success of his books.)

It’s that the way Romney talks about money can make him seem drastically out of touch with average people — an issue that is exacerbated by the fact that he is running for president in a time of incredible economic hardship. (In a new Washington Post-ABC poll,55 percent said the biggest problem facing the country is “unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy” while 34 percent said the biggest issue is “over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity”.)

A prime example: Romney’s proposed $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry over a disagreement on health care in a debate last year. The Romney forces downplayed the moment, insisting that he picked a huge sum of money to show that he was joking. Maybe, but in the moment it certainly didn’t feel like he was kidding around.

We’ve seen personal wealth bring candidates down before. Arizona Sen. John McCain’s inability to remember how many houses he owned during the 2008 election helped Democrats make the case that he was out of step with regular folks. Ditto Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s love of windsurfing in the 2004 election.

You may dismiss these things as minor moments overblown by a gotcha media always looking to tear politicians down. (Damn media!) But, the reality of a vote for president is that it is far more dependent on personal traits than policy stances.

Voters want to feel as though they are electing someone who feels their pain (hellooo Bill Clinton!), someone who, at some point in his life, has walked in their shoes.

(Our favorite question in any national poll? Which candidate “understands the problems of people like you”? Winning on that question almost always translates into winning elections.)

Being rich isn’t the problem. Being unaware that lots and lots of other people aren’t (and what that means in real terms) is.

Romney already struggles with the connection thing — he is a gifted communicator in things like debates and speeches but much less so in impromptu conversations with voters — and his considerable wealth (and his seeming uncomfortableness talking about it) has the potential to make matters worse.

Romney cannot let himself be cast as a blue blood whose run for president is simply an attempt to accumulate another trophy in a life filled with accolades. He may never be a natural populist — of course, neither will Obama — but he can’t let his wealth define him as fundamentally “other” either.

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