Romney Redux: Did The Front-Runner Find A Way Back In?
On Tuesday, it is likely the presidential campaign's focus will shift to Mitt Romney's tax returns, which show him making $42.5 million in 2010 and 2011. That number may be bigger than he can finesse by saying in essence: Don't hate me because I'm successful.
Even if nothing more problematic looms in the 500 pages of supporting documents released early Tuesday, the magnitude of Romney's wealth — and the rather modest rate at which it is taxed — may explain his reluctance to release the returns up to now. Romney will pay a tax rate of 15.4 percent for 2011. The top marginal rate for wage earners is 35 percent.
Romney's camp released the returns several hours before they had promised to do so, perhaps encouraged by the candidate's improved performance in Monday night's debate in Tampa.
On stage in Tampa, Romney was a changed man. Gone was the defensive crouch from last week's debates in South Carolina. Gone too was the testiness that flared during earlier confrontations with rival candidates for the GOP nomination.
It would be too much to say Romney had turned his ship around. But at least he righted it again after the knockdown it suffered in South Carolina on Saturday, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bested the former Massachusetts governor by 14 percentage points.
Romney came to Tampa primed to tackle Gingrich and went on the offensive early, saying the former Speaker had been "a failed leader," fined for ethics violations and forced to "resign in disgrace." Worse yet, Romney said, Gingrich had stuck around Washington after his fall, making money for the next 13 years through "influence peddling."
Most of us braced ourselves for a stem-winding Gingrichian blast in retort, but instead the often volatile Gingrich said he wasn't going to try to rebut Romney's charges. He said it was all tactics and it had all been disproved and we could see how on his website.
But there was none of last week's fiery denunciation of the media, or the kind of charge-for-charge dueling with Romney we have come to expect in previous debates. Gingrich seemed either weary or, more likely, too resolved to alter his style.
In South Carolina, Gingrich had been gloriously combative, flexing his debate muscles and spoiling for a fight. In Tampa, he was not only more measured but downright subdued.
The contrast might not have been so distinct had there not been such a marked difference in the audience's behavior. Last week, in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, the crowds responded as though in a Roman coliseum. When Gingrich went after the media moderators, the audience rose to its feet and seemed ready to rush the stage.
In Tampa, by comparison, the audience reaction was nearly non-existent. NBC and moderator Brian Williams, along with the other sponsors of the event, had somehow prevailed on the attendees to stifle themselves. And with the exception of a few audible noises here and there — including some polite applause for Texas Congressman Ron Paul — the audience remained silent.
From the earliest exchanges between Williams and the candidates, the absence of whistling, cheering and stomping lowered the temperature on stage and raised the caliber of the discourse. It was obvious that in this cooler environment, Romney found his own comfort zone.
Romney bore in early on the House leadership question. When Gingrich said he had stepped aside due to the disappointment of the GOP's seat loss in the 1998 midterms, Paul (who was a member of the House at the time) corrected the record. Gingrich quit because he didn't have the votes to remain as Speaker, Paul said, voicing a judgment widely shared at the time.
Gingrich was also on the defensive over his years on retainer with Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant now deemed to have been part of the problem in the housing meltdown that began in 2007. He said his contract forbade lobbying, but that document had been released earlier in the day and showed him reporting to Freddie Mac's chief lobbyist. Lobbying was not explicit in the contract, but neither was it ruled out.
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, was also on hand for a barrage of challenges from NBC's Williams and others. Why had he lost so badly in his last race in 2006? Did he really think Congress should have intervened in the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who died after being taken off life support in 2005.
Santorum made a game effort to get into the debate by portraying both Romney and Gingrich as friends of the "individual mandate" feature in the Obama health care law.
But neither Santorum nor Paul managed to hold the cameras for long. The media generally prefer a two-person race to a multi-candidate field, and Monday night was another example of how that sorts out.
For the moment, at least, Romney may be glad to have the field simplified so he can stay on the attack against Gingrich. But the nature of the race to date has been that no story line holds for more than a week, and many do not endure even that long.