TAMPA: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ripped into rival Newt Gingrich in the latest debate, attacking what he said was the former speaker of the House of Representatives' disgraced exit and subsequent work as a Washington influence peddler. But attention focused on Romney's finances — including a now-closed Swiss bank account — after his campaign released tax returns in the early hours Tuesday.
The leaders for the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November appeared to have exchanged roles in the 18th debate, with the fiery Gingrich on the defensive a week before Florida votes Jan. 31. The state's diversity, large population and large media markets are a bigger challenge than the three states that have voted in the nominating process so far.
Surveys show Gingrich leading Romney after his decisive win in South Carolina over the weekend, making Florida pivotal if Romney is to reassert his former role as the inevitable Republican nominee.
Gingrich told Fox News on Tuesday morning that Romney is a "desperate guy" throwing wild punches.
In the unsettled political atmosphere, Obama will deliver his third State of the Union address Tuesday night before a joint session of Congress. The nationally televised speech will be watched closely more for its political message in an election year than for policy initiatives as Obama hopes for a second term. Congress is virtually deadlocked, with Republicans holding the majority in the House and Democrats ascendant in the Senate, meaning Obama initiatives can be held hostage to politics.
Obama also remains vulnerable on the economy, the top issue in the election, and has low approval ratings for his handling of the slow rebound from the devastating 2007-2009 Great Recession.
The Republican leading candidates are wrestling with more personal economic issues. Both Romney and Gingrich have now released documentation about issues that have bedeviled their campaigns.
Romney, whose wealth is estimated to be as much as $250 million, put out income tax returns for 2010 overnight that show he is among the top 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers. His income puts him in the top 0.006 percent of Americans, based on the most recent Internal Revenue Service data, from 2009. That year, only 8,274 filers reported income above $10 million.
Asked during television interviews Tuesday about Romney's relatively modest tax rate, given that he's a multimillionaire, White House adviser David Plouffe said: "We need to change our tax system. We need to change our tax code so that everybody is doing their fair share."
Romney's 2010 returns and estimates for last year also showed he paid 14 percent and 15.4 percent government assessments on investments of the vast fortune he accumulated as a venture capitalist. That rate is far lower than standard rates for high-income earners whose income is derived from their wages rather than investment earnings.
Romney is seen by many as a member of America's superwealthy investor class that uses the U.S. tax code to pay a lesser rate than working people. He had refused until recently to disclose any federal tax returns, then hinted he would offer a single year's return in April. But mounting criticism and the South Carolina primary forced his hand.
He earned $21.7 million income in 2010, most of it from his investments, and for 2011 he will pay about $3.2 million, his campaign said.
As his newly released returns were scrutinized, Romney's advisers acknowledged that Romney once had a Swiss bank account but had it closed in 2010 as he prepared to enter the race for the White House. Trustee R. Bradford Malt acknowledged Tuesday that the account, which was worth $3 million and was held in the United Bank of Switzerland, might be inconsistent with Romney's political views.
There are continuing calls for him to release earlier tax returns from the period when he worked at Bain Capital, the venture firm, and to explain why he has some of his fortune parked in investments in the Cayman Islands, a location that serves many as a tax shelter.
"I'm proud of the fact that I pay a lot of taxes," Romney said during Monday's debate.
Gingrich released a 2006 contract outlining his work as a consultant for the federally backed mortgage guarantor Freddie Mac, an agency held up by some as responsible for the collapse of the U.S. housing market that led to the near collapse of the U.S. financial system in late 2008. Gingrich also has fought off his past ethics reprimand while House speaker and the coup among members of his own party that led to his ouster from the leadership post and later resignation from Congress.
Gingrich insisted his contract with Freddie Mac proves he was a consultant and not a lobbyist paid to influence congressional legislation that could affect the mortgage giant. Gingrich's consulting firm was paid $1.6 million for its work with the agency.
"You've been walking around the state saying things that are untrue," Gingrich told Romney.
In Monday's debate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul were left mainly on the sidelines, watching Gingrich and Romney clash.