Mitt Romney now says he'll make public his tax returns

Under pressure over his wealth at a time when many Americans are struggling, and coming off a drubbing in the South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney says he’ll release his tax returns this week.

David Goldman/AP
Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich shake hands at the end of the Republican presidential candidate debate in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19.

Under pressure over his wealth at a time when many Americans are struggling, and coming off a drubbing in the South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney says he’ll release his tax returns this week.

"We made a mistake holding off as long as we did and it just was a distraction," Romney said on Fox News Sunday.

A “major distraction,” he might have said.

Romney and South Carolina primary winner Newt Gingrich are both millionaires. But with an estimated net worth upwards of a quarter billion dollars, Romney is one of the wealthiest presidential candidates in US history – certainly near the top of the “one percent” that Occupy Wall Street protesters (and President Obama) have been harping on.

Gingrich had been needling him about that, critical of the way Romney made his millions running a controversial investment firm that may have helped create jobs but that also led to bankruptcies and many layoffs.

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Gingrich got the jump on Romney last week by revealing that he and his wife Callista had paid nearly $1 million in taxes on about $3 million in income in 2011 – an effective tax rate of about 32 percent, which is what many Americans pay.

Romney paints his financial success as a positive, suggesting that any criticism is an attack on capitalism – a bedrock value in Republican politics.

"I think what the American people are going to see is someone who's been extraordinarily successful in his life," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a prominent Romney supporter, said Sunday on NBC. "And I don't think the American people want a failure as president. I think they like somebody who's succeeded in whatever they've tried to do, and I think that's what you're going to see with Governor Romney."  

But it’s been hard for the former Massachusetts governor to shake the Richie Rich image when he’s paying about 15 percent in capital gains taxes, has some of his investments in the Cayman Islands (albeit perfectly legal and as part of a blind family trust), and recently suggested that earning more than $370,000 just in speaking fees was “not much.”

Most recently, it was the tax issue that brought focus to that image.

“What hurt him was he wasn’t definitive in his answer,” Senator Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina (who’s neutral in the race so far) said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union. “He should have said immediately, ‘I’m going to do it in April, or I’m not going to do it,’ but the fact that he wasn't clear is, I think, what hurt him."

As the clear front-runner in the GOP presidential nominating contest, Gingrich can afford to be gracious about it.

"I think that's a very good thing he's doing and I commend him for it," Gingrich said on NBC's "Meet the Press” Sunday. "And as far as I'm concerned, that particular issue is now set aside and we can go on and talk about other bigger and more important things."

Gingrich may well hope so. But that’s unlikely – in the remaining primaries and caucuses, and certainly in the general election when some version of “class warfare” can be expected to be an issue between Republicans and Democrats.

As the quintessential Washington insider, Gingrich himself became a very wealthy man after he was forced out of his job as House speaker – including $1.6 million as an “historian” (critics say lobbyist) for the controversial mortgage company Freddie Mac.

Still, the focus likely will remain on Romney – the far wealthier of the two leading candidates now set to duke it out in Florida.

"I frankly don't care about his tax returns," Sen. DeMint said Sunday. "I think stigmatizing his success is a real mistake for Republicans. But he just needed to be definitive about what he was going to do.”

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