WASHINGTON - America's long-held distrust of intellectuals is legendary, but the already perplexing national trait has moved into overdrive in the Republican presidential race, with Mitt Romney facing heat for knowing French and Jon Huntsman viewed with suspicion because he speaks Mandarin.
Both candidates are Mormons, and learned the languages as young men while on religious missions to France and China, respectively. Huntsman's agility in Mandarin was among the reasons the Obama administration tapped him to become ambassador to China in 2009.
And yet only in America, some liberal commentators are bemoaning, would a candidate's efficiency in a foreign language be regarded as a strike against him.
"I can't believe that's not impressive to a Republican primary audience who won't even eat mandarin oranges because they don't want to take jobs away from American fruit," Jon Stewart quipped sarcastically on "The Daily Show" after playing a clip of Huntsman breaking into a few words of Mandarin in a recent Republican debate.
In South Carolina, meantime, a pair of Newt Gingrich attack ads against Romney focus on his ability to — mon Dieu! — speak French.
One of them, entitled "The French Connection," attacks Romney's record while comparing him to John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 who lost to incumbent president George W. Bush amid perceptions he was too patrician for American tastes.
Romney "will say anything to win, anything, and just like John Kerry, he speaks French, too," the narrator intones menacingly as a jaunty French accordion tune plays in the background. Romney is seen speaking French in the web spot.
The increasingly discredited "When Mitt Romney Came To Town," portraying the former Massachusetts governor as a ruthless corporate raider when he headed a private equity firm, even closes with the same clip of him ominously chattering in French.
Gingrich defended "The French Connection" on Sunday, saying it was simply meant as a joke that would illustrate similarities between Romney and other "Massachusetts moderates" like Kerry and Michael Dukakis.
"The whole ad was designed to say look, this is what Massachusetts is like," he said on NBC's "Meet The Press. "He's much closer to Dukakis and Kerry than Ronald Reagan."
He added the ad has gone viral, and is "funny ... people think it's funny."
Huntsman, for his part, has tried to use his acuity in Mandarin to portray himself as a serious presidential contender who could sit down and make progress with America's biggest trade irritant. Instead, his penchant for breaking into the language in debates — and even during campaign stops in South Carolina — has raised the hackles of some Republicans.
"You don't speak Mandarin during a Republican debate," griped Joe Scarborough, former congressman for the party and now host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
Chimed in Michael Steele, former head of the Republican National Committee: "I thought he was ordering takeout."
Donald Trump, who recently kicked off the latest season of "Celebrity Apprentice" with some trademark rants against China, was equally snarky.
"I didn't think the Mandarin thing worked at all. I thought it was ridiculous," Trump said in a post-debate appearance on Fox News. "And frankly, I think Huntsman's stance toward China is ... it's almost like he's an Obama plant."
Trump's anti-Huntsman tirade has largely been greeted with a yawn, given it's likely tied to the former Utah governor's thinly veiled contempt for him. Huntsman's been one of the few Republican candidates, alongside Ron Paul, who hasn't pandered to real estate mogul throughout the race.
"I'm not going to kiss his ring and I'm not going to kiss any other part of his anatomy," Huntsman once said.
A nasty web video — purportedly from a Ron Paul supporter, though the Paul campaign has vehemently denied it — also called Huntsman "the Manchurian candidate," and suggested he was a traitor for adopting a daughter from China and another from India.
The attacks against Romney's ability to speak French have resulted in ridicule from left-leaning news outlets, who have pointed out that Gingrich himself is a college professor who rarely hesitates to present himself as the towering intellect among his rivals for the Republican nomination.
Gingrich even lived in France for a few years as a teenager, and has often compared himself to Charles de Gaulle, the French general and Second World War hero.
"Newt Gingrich's Mitt Romney 'French' Ad Stops Just Short Of Noting His 'Purdy Mouth,'" read a recent headline on Mediaite in a reference to "Deliverance," a iconic 1970s film best-known for its male rape scene by a band of redneck southern hillbillies.
Tommy Christopher, a columnist for Mediaite, says Gingrich's ads were insulting to the intelligence of voters in South Carolina.
"Are South Carolina's voters expected to drop their banjos, grab their Bowies, and chase Romney through the woods yelping 'Wheeeeeee!?'" he wrote.
A hilarious Twitter stream has also been created in the aftermath of the attack ad. It's called "LeVraiMitt," and its boasts include: "Je suis le best at le job creation."
But it's not just Democrats and liberals who are questioning Gingrich's crusade to bring down Romney at any cost, and with any line of attack no matter how far-reaching.
In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, David Wilkins, a South Carolina Republican who served as the U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2005 to 2009, predicts the tactic will only serve to backfire on Gingrich.
Indeed, a series of new polls released over the weekend have Romney pulling out ahead of Gingrich decisively in South Carolina. Gingrich had been nipping at his heels in the state last week.
"I think the true negative affect will be against those who are engaging in these kinds of attacks," Wilkins said, pointing in particular to attacks on Romney's years at Bain Capital.
"You boil it all down and one of the platforms of our party is entrepreneurialship, individualism and free enterprise. One candidate taking on another for being successful as an entrepreneur? That doesn't play well, and I don't think we ought to be doing it."
Americans aren't monolithically opposed to public figures being bilingual. Jackie Kennedy was admired for her ability to speak French, and was thought to have brought style and class to the White House in the early 1960s.
No one chastises any candidate for knowing how to speak Spanish, either, given Hispanics represent a rapidly growing voting bloc in the United States.
And U.S. President Barack Obama once suggested in an appearance with Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he wished he knew how to speak French.
"Now, I love French, but I'm just not very capable of speaking it," he said.