A Case of Good Timing, Perhaps, in Romney’s Tax Disclosure

Michael D. Shear|The New York Times
Mitt Romney South Carolina
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The pile-on began just moments after Mitt Romney — a man easily worth more than $200 million — admitted Tuesday morning that he pays federal taxes at a rate of about 15 percent, far less than most middle-income families.

But could the timing actually be good for Mr. Romney?

Democrats pounced, gleeful at the prospect of portraying the leading Republican candidate as a direct beneficiary of tax policies that favor the wealthy over the middle class. They started a Twitter campaign to mock his reluctance to release his federal income tax returns. And they sent out more than a dozen e-mails citing his taxes.

“His tax plan would increase benefits for millionaires and billionaires,” said Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, on a conference call quickly organized by the Democratic National Committee. “I think it’s very important to understand his refusal to disclose the loopholes he’s using and the tax strategy he’s employed.”

And in case that was not enough, Mr. Romney offered some icing on the cake: an offhand remark that his income from paid speeches amounted to “not very much” money. The problem? In one recent year, he made $374,327.62 giving speeches — an amount vastly higher than the income of a typical family.

It was as if Mr. Romney was once again playing into the hands of President Obama’s political advisers, who believe that voters will not elect a wealthy, Wall Street Republican during a time of economic uncertainty.

Tuesday’s comments came on the heels of more than two weeks of attention — driven largely by Mr. Romney’s Republican rivals — focused on his role as a venture capitalist who bought and sold businesses, with sometimes dire consequences for workers.

And that followed Mr. Romney’s statement that he knows what its like to worry about getting a pink slip, and a comment, taken out of context by his critics, that he “likes to fire people.”

Taken together, the string of moments provided Democrats an opportunity to define Mr. Romney as out of touch with regular people, a creature of special interests and the embodiment of Mr. Obama’s argument that the wealthy need to do more to help the nation get out of its fiscal hole.

“We won’t be waiting until he reveals his returns in April to remind voters that Romney’s tax policy would keep taxes low for millionaires like himself, putting a burden on the middle class,” promised Bill Burton, the head of a “super PAC” backing Mr. Obama.

Mr. Burton predicted that concerns about Mr. Romney’s wealth “will only grow as he is introduced to a general electorate that rightly has deep concerns about the Wall Street deals that benefited executives like Mitt Romney, but left middle class families devastated.”

But it is not entirely clear that the sustained focus on Mr. Romney’s wealth at this particular moment is a good thing for Mr. Obama’s re-election hopes.

Aides to Mr. Romney have known for years that he would have to confront this issue. Having built his second presidential campaign primarily around his business experience, he was never going to be able to dismiss questions about how his fortune and how he made it.

Having the subject of Mr. Romney’s tax returns come up now, as he is battling for the Republican nomination, could make it seem like old news and no big deal if he becomes the nominee and Mr. Obama brings it up again this fall.

And if he wins the South Carolina primary on Saturday Mr. Romney can — and probably will — claim the victory as evidence that real voters were unmoved and unconcerned by his wealth and the flap over his taxes.

It may be dangerous, however, for Mr. Romney and his advisers to assume that they know how Democratic and independent voters will react to questions about his wealth. The media attention on Mr. Romney’s work at Bain Capital, a private equity firm, and his taxes has played out this month against the backdrop of a Republican primary, with conservative voters paying the closest attention. That won’t be the case in the fall if Mr. Romney is the Republican nominee, battling Mr. Obama for the independent voters in swing states.

The broader attacks on his wealth, and specifically his work at Bain Capital, have prompted conservative groups who have never been Mr. Romney’s staunchest allies to rush to his aid. Those allies are now far more likely to come to his defense when the attacks are coming from Mr. Obama.

“Attacking Governor Romney for participating in free-market capitalism is just beyond the pale,” said Chris Chocola, the president of Club for Growth, a group which by no means is a fan of Mr. Romney. (The group’s recent white paper on Mr. Romney concluded that he “supports big government solutions to health care and opposes pro-growth tax code reform — positions that are simply opposite to those supported by true economic conservatives.”)

Strategists for Mr. Obama are encouraged that they are already beginning to tell the story about Mr. Romney even before he has secured the nomination. But the danger for the Democratic team is that the story could seem old by the time it would have a real impact on the race between the two men.

And Mr. Romney and his allies are also using this opportunity as a dry run of sorts — testing which responses work and which do not.

“It was sadly inevitable that the Obama campaign and the D.N.C. would demonize Governor Romney for succeeding in the private sector, abiding by the law, and seeking to keep taxes low for all Americans,” wrote Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economic policy adviser for Senator John McCain in 2008, who is neutral this time. His article in National Review Online was titled: “It’s the Silly (Tax Policy) Season.”

Mr. Romney, too, will no doubt be better at answering these questions in nine months if he is the nominee.

If that is the case, he may look back on these past several weeks and remember them fondly as the time that he finally figured out how to confront the biggest attack on his economic credentials from President Obama.