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Romney tax returns: Could Reid’s unsubstantiated attack hurt Democrats?

Harry Reid, the Senate's top Democrat, says Mitt Romney paid no income tax for 10 years. His source, he says, is a Bain Capital investor. But he won't say who. The tactic could backfire.

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He cites Republican attacks on President Clinton in the 1990s, including impeachment, which ended up backfiring on the Republicans.

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But Reid is a wily political operator – he almost miraculously won reelection in 2010 despite low job approval – so Romney & Co. can’t dismiss him lightly. In replying to Reid’s charge in an interview Thursday on Fox News, Romney showed rare pique in saying that Reid needs to “put up or shut up” with his allegations.

Some Democrats are giving Reid the benefit of the doubt.

“We know Harry Reid is one tough old boxer,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications strategist. “And you know, he’s not letting up. He clearly thinks he’s onto something here, or he wouldn’t be doing it.”

Watchdogs on political discourse aren’t buying it. Without the evidence, they say, Reid should stop what some are calling McCarthy-esque tactics.

“What he said would not be admissible in court as evidence,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, told McClatchy Newspapers.

But in the court of politics, anything goes, it seems. Ever since Romney released some of his taxes in January – revealing that he had paid an effective rate of 13.9 percent in 2010, and also that he had accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands – he has been dogged by requests for more. So far, nothing illegal has emerged from Romney’s financial disclosures. And it could be legally possible for him to have paid no tax in some years.

Romney’s spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, has denied that there was any year in which Romney paid zero in taxes. In July, Romney told the National Review he did not want to release more returns because he was “simply not enthusiastic about giving [the Obama campaign] hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort, and lie about.”

Romney’s late father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, began the tradition of presidential candidates releasing tax returns, when he put forth 12 years’ worth in 1968. President Obama has released his tax returns back to 2000. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain released only two years of returns. But he did not face pressure to release more, likely because he was running as a longtime senator and Vietnam War hero, not on a record in business.

Reid himself has not publicly released his tax returns, but his office says he is not required. He’s not running for president.

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