Can Romney ride out the storm over his unreleased tax returns?

Romney can't release any more tax returns now without looking weak, but in the long run, political strategists say, he can't resist the pressure to follow tradition. Perhaps a quiet Friday in August.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign stop on Wednesday, July 18, in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Mitt Romney will not release any more tax returns, he has said emphatically.

And even if Mr. Romney had been inclined to follow the advice of some prominent fellow Republicans and release a few more recent returns, he really can’t, at least right now. If he did, he would look as if he had caved to pressure. No presidential candidate wants to look weak.

So can the uber-wealthy Romney ride out the storm over his unreleased returns and not look as if he’s hiding something? Probably not, say political strategists. Though he is not required by law to share his tax returns, he is by tradition – all the more because it was his father, George Romney, who pioneered the practice during his own presidential campaign in 1968.

Some Republican strategists agree.

“I do think sometime in August, on a Friday before the convention, Romney will likely have a tax dump of some kind,” says a former staffer on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. The GOP convention begins Aug. 27.

The aide believes that if there had been something alarming in any of the 23 tax returns Romney handed over to Senator McCain four years ago when he was being vetted as a possible running mate, he would have heard about it. There wasn’t.

Even though the aide believes Romney will eventually release the additional returns, he doesn’t think he should, unlike former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (In January, Romney released his 2010 return and his estimated 2011 return.) But he suggests that if Romney does eventually put out several more returns, he had better brace himself.

“This hit will not be three days,” he says. “Anyone who thinks it will be that short has never done hand-to-hand combat with these guys.”

President Obama is determined to paint Romney as a “corporate stooge,” the former aide says. “People do not understand the tax code. It is more convoluted than college football's [bowl system]. The brilliance of Obama's current campaign strategy is that he has put the burden of educating the voter on Romney.”

Of particular interest has been the 2009 tax return. It is the one recent return that has not either been released or included in the stack of returns Romney handed the McCain campaign four years ago. Some press reports have speculated that Romney may have paid zero tax that year, or another recent year, a conceivably legitimate outcome, had he claimed big losses on investments.

On that score, the Romney camp’s wall of silence on the unreleased returns is starting to crack. Politico asked Romney’s spokeswoman Wednesday if there was a year when he paid no tax.

“Not true,” Andrea Saul said.

That does not eliminate the possibility that Romney paid very low taxes at some point – lower than the effective 13.9 percent rate he paid in his 2010 return, already far lower than that of the typical American taxpayer. Multiple years of super-low tax rates, no matter how legal and legitimate, would further Romney’s image as part of the privileged 1 percent.

Romney has justified his decision not to release more tax returns by saying it would only invite more unfair attacks from the opposition.

"I'm simply not enthusiastic about giving them hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort, and lie about," he told the National Review on Tuesday. The conservative magazine later published an editorial calling on Romney to release more returns.

On Wednesday, Romney tried to change the subject by ramping up his attacks on Mr. Obama. At a town hall meeting in Bowling Green, Ohio, Romney went after the president for suggesting last Friday that businesses owe their success to the government.

Romney has turned that into an indictment of Obama as anti-business and therefore incapable of fostering job creation.

“This is the height of foolishness.... It shows how out of touch he is with the character of America,” Romney said, according to news reports.

Romney also accused Obama of focusing on fundraising at the expense of the struggling economy.

“When people need good jobs you would think the president would focus all of his energy and his passion on helping people get jobs,” Romney said. “In the last six months he has held 100 fundraisers and guess how many meetings he has had with his jobs council? None. Zero. Zero in the last six months, so it makes it very clear where his priorities are.”

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