Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WINNSBORO, S.C. — Mitt Romney tried doggedly Wednesday to sidestep the political furor he had started a day earlier by revealing he pays federal taxes at a rate of about 15 percent, less than millions of middle-income American families. Newt Gingrich, his main rival in this weekend's South Carolina primary, poked at Romney anew and disclosed he personally pays more than twice that.
Just before Saturday's South Carolina voting, Romney is trying to wrap up his push for the Republican nomination, but it's been anything but smooth. He's spent nearly two weeks answering questions and criticism about his personal wealth and tenure at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded, and those subjects are sure to come up again in Thursday night's debate.
Gingrich slapped at the GOP front-runner, saying in Winnsboro that he himself paid 31 percent of his income in taxes for 2010, more than twice what Romney said he paid. Gingrich's campaign said the 31 percent was the effective federal rate on income, apparently not including Social Security payroll taxes.
Gingrich told reporters that he is not criticizing Romney for paying a tax rate below what most wage-earning Americans pay. Gingrich has proposed a plan that would give Americans the option of paying a 15 percent flat tax — which he notes is the same rate Romney is citing.
"My goal is not to raise Mitt Romney's taxes but to let everyone pay Romney's rate," Gingrich said.
While a supporter rushed to Romney's defense, the former Massachusetts governor ducked the issue entirely on Wednesday, making no mention of his tax returns or tax rate during a rally at Wofford College here and declining to take questions from the news media. Instead, he delivered his standard campaign speech and assailed Gingrich, who has been running second in opinion polls in South Carolina.
Romney aides, too, refused to comment about his tax returns or details of his tax rate when pressed. His campaign held a conference call featuring surrogates who tried to cast Gingrich, the former House speaker, as an unreliable leader, but the wealth and taxes issue showed no signs of going away.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has endorsed Romney, sought to help by defending Romney's tax status on TV. But that may have backfired when Christie on NBC's "Today Show" suggest Romney put out his tax returns "sooner rather than later."
"It's always better in my view to have complete disclosure, especially when you're the front-runner," Christie said.
After months of resistance and under pressure from Republican presidential rivals, Romney now says he will release tax information for 2011 — but not until April, close to the tax filing deadline and when, presumably, the GOP race will have been decided.
Romney disclosed for the first time on Tuesday that, despite his wealth of hundreds of millions of dollars, he has been paying in the neighborhood of 15 percent, far below the top maximum income tax rate of 35 percent, because his income "comes overwhelmingly from investments made in the past." During 2010 and the first nine months of 2011, the Romney family had at least $9.6 million in income, according to a financial disclosure form submitted in August.
Further focusing attention on his wealth was Romney's offhand remark to reporters that his income from paid speeches amounted to "not very much" money. In the August disclosure statement, he reported being paid $373,327.62 for such appearances for the 12 months ending last February, a sum that alone would him in the top 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers.
It recalled other politically awkward moments for Romney in which he unintentionally put a spotlight on his own wealth, including his offer to wage a $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a GOP debate last month over a disagreement on health care policy. He also joked to a group of voters that, since leaving Bain in 1999, he has been "unemployed."
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