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Observers: Romney Olympic horse could be political liability

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 4:11 AM EDT, Fri August 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ann Romney's dressage horse made its Olympic debut Thursday
  • Ann Romney began riding horses to help lessen the symptoms of multiple sclerosis
  • A new ad by liberal group MoveOn.org pokes fun at the horse
  • Conservative commentator has suggested Olympic horse was a questionable political move

Washington (CNN) -- A horse is a horse, of course, of course. That is, of course, unless that dancing horse belongs to the famous Romney family.

Sports Illustrated Explainer: What's dressage?

Rafalca, the dressage horse co-owned by Ann Romney, the wife of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, competed Thursday and will continue competition on Friday at the London Olympics; the horse is in 13th place after Thursday's competition. Ann Romney began riding horses when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998 and has said the sport has helped lessen the symptoms of the inflammatory disease.

Horserace turns (almost) literal in London

Still, the Romneys' participation in the pricey prancing pony sport is causing conservatives consternation and liberals laughing fits. Both say the fussy filly is yet more proof that Romney, whose net worth is nearly $250 million, is out of touch with average voters.

Ann Romney's horse Olympic-bound

"It fits into the narrative the Democrats are trying to put forward that he is wealthy and out of touch with the typical America," said Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

The liberal group MoveOn.org pokes fun at the elegant equine in a 30-second television spot set to air in the battleground states of Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania and supported by a total ad buy of five figures.

Looking a dressage horse in the mouth

The ad is told from the perspective of the horse.

"My name's Rafalca, the Romneys' dressage horse," the ad begins. MoveOn.org uses a poorly executed English accent as the voice of the Romneys' horse.

"You might have seen me execute 'leg yields' and 'flying changes,'" the ad continues, using terms from the sport of dressage. "How do I pull off such grace and athleticism while looking so good? Maybe it's because the Romneys spend $77,000 per year on my upkeep."

The ad comes to a grim conclusion, stating: "After Mitt Romney repeals health care and ships your jobs overseas, I daresay your life won't be nearly as pampered as mine. After all, you're not one of his horses."

What Romney could learn from dressage

In mid-July, the Democratic National Committee briefly used video of the Romneys' Olympic-bound horse to portray the candidate as "dancing around the issues," but later discontinued using Rafalca because it could be seen as offensive to the GOP candidate's wife.

DNC to stop using Romney horse in attack videos

Such cheap shots reflect ignorance about the sport, said Stephan Hienzsch, executive director of the United States Dressage Federation.

"It's a bit misleading that the sport is as expensive or as elitist as people have made it out to be," Hienzsch said. "It doesn't necessarily reflect on the entire sport."

Still, conservatives are mortified at what they see as the poor political strategy of having a horse participate in something that, according to the United States Dressage Federation, can cost upwards of $50,000 to compete at such a high level.

"I'm not sure why the horse has to be in the most upper-class hoity-toity Olympic event ever invented," conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News recently. "It's unnecessary."

During the campaign, Romney has struggled to shake the image of a disconnected multimillionaire. Comments about NASCAR-owning friends and asides on owning more than one Cadillac certainly don't help matters, political experts say.

Romney calls billionaire football team owners friends

In a Quinnipiac University/ CBS News/New York Times swing state poll released this week, more than 50% of voters in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio said they do not feel Romney "cares about the needs and problems of people" like themselves. More than 50% of voters polled in those two states said President Barack Obama cares about their needs and problems.

While the candidate and his team are rooting for Team USA, it wouldn't be a bad thing politically if Rafalca fails to medal, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"This is one of these things where the candidate defers to his spouse even though the entire staff knows it's a bad idea. You don't have to be a political strategist to know this was not a good idea," Sabato said of the horse's Olympic debut this week. "This is no Mr. Ed."

Winning a medal will ensure Romney is the butt of horse jokes for weeks to come. With Friday's dressage competition looming, there's still time to make political hay out of the matter.

"If I were the Romney campaign I'd be hoping the Romney horse finishes fourth," said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "The audience for dressage is not huge, but if Romney's horse wins the gold medal that's a lot of attention."

CNN's Kevin Liptak and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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