CHARLESTON, S.C. — Mitt Romney is having a bad week.
The former Massachusetts governor seemed like the inevitable Republican presidential nominee on Monday, but he’s seen his poll numbers drop and rival Newt Gingrich gain momentum.
Romney has stumbled several times in recent days to handle questions about his tax payments and personal fortune, and drew boos and jeers at a GOP debate Thursday night while struggling to answer a question about the release of his tax records.
Surveys from both ARG and Insider Advantage released Thursday show Gingrich leading in South Carolina for the first time in weeks.
Gingrich also won high-profile endorsements from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who gave the nod to Gingrich after dropping out of the race, and former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Perry’s exit could be particularly damaging to Romney since his endorsement of Gingrich could rally conservatives — the largest voting bloc in South Carolina’s primary — around the former Speaker.
Nor does Romney have as great claim to inevitable victory after final results from the Iowa caucuses showed Rick Santorum actually winning the state by a 34-vote margin. While the full results are still uncertain — results from eight precincts remain missing — the news deals a symbolic blow to Romney’s campaign.
None of those events would be particularly damaging on their own, but Romney has done little this week to assuage conservative fears that he would struggle to inspire voters during a tough campaign with President Obama.
Romney gave a rambling and evasive answer when pressed about his tax returns at a GOP debate on Monday, and it went from bad to worse a day later when when Romney admitted that he likely paid around 15 percent in taxes annually.
That rate — far less than what the former governor would have paid had his earnings come from income rather than investments and capital gains — seemed to play right into Democratic arguments for raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
But it might have been Romney’s subsequent description of almost $375,000 in speaking fees as "not very much" that caused the most consternation among voters. The White House immediately seized on the comments, with press secretary Jay Carney suggesting that Romney’s pair of admissions “illuminated” a widening gap of income inequality that the president views as a major issue in the campaign.
On Thursday night, Romney had a chance to make amends but instead stumbled again as the crowd at the Charleston debate booed Romney's answer to a question about whether he'd follow the example of his father, who released more than a decade of tax returns while running for public office.
"Maybe," Romney said, laughing. "I'll release multiple years. I don't know how many years."
Democrats are already salivating over Romney's latest stumble, with Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz saying Romney "ducked and dodged" on whether he would release his returns. "So dissembling and disjointed was Mitt Romney’s response tonight that he was actually booed by the audience," the Florida Democrat said in a statement.
ABC News also reported the Romney had millions in investment funds based in the Cayman Islands, questioning whether the former governor had done so to further avoid tax liabilities. Even though the campaign quickly disputed the ABC report as “flat wrong,” and insisted that Romney paid the same taxes on those investments as he would in the United States, the incident only underscored fears that Romney would be painted as a wealthy elitist.
Romney advisers are downplaying recent events — and slipping poll numbers — insisting expectations were always outsized for the governor and pointing out that no candidate has ever swept the first three primaries. Campaign staff also pointed out that Romney had been trailing in the polls in both Iowa and South Carolina just a month ago.
But Romney also sharpened his criticism of his rivals, and particularly Gingrich, at a stop outside his Charleston campaign headquarters Thursday. The former governor argued that those who spent too much time in Washington, D.C., “get this mind-set that you’re really creating the economic vitality of the nation. That’s not how it happens.”
He went on to joke that Gingrich and President Obama — who was visiting Walt Disney World Thursday — might bump into one another “down there in Fantasyland.”
“When the Speaker was Speaker, I was working in businesses, trying to get my enterprises to be successful,” Romney said. “I was helping start businesses … I know how jobs come. They don’t come because of Washington, they come, in some cases, in spite of Washington.”
Romney was joined at the event by three of his highest-profile allies, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — a show of the strength of his organization that emphasized the ideological range of his supporters.
That organizational advantage leaves Romney as still the strong favorite for the GOP nomination.
Helping his cause is Gingrich’s public struggle to put his personal history behind him.
An ABC News interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne Gingrich revealed embarrassing details about the former Speaker’s acrimonious divorce, including that Gingrich allegedly asked to remain married in an open relationship. That interview came to dominate a news cycle that the Gingrich campaign would have preferred devoted to the former Speaker’s late surge in the polls.
Santorum’s continued presence in the race is also a problem for Gingrich, as it keeps conservatives divided. At a rally Thursday in Charleston, Santorum pointed out that he had beat out both Romney and Gingrich in Iowa, and outperformed the former Speaker even in moderate New Hampshire.
“We have to nominate someone who is going to make Barack Obama the issue in the race, not be the issue in the race,” Santorum argued.
Romney remains the odds-on favorite to win his party’s nomination. Still, the stumbles this week could come back to haunt him in the general election, and they have allowed a bit of doubt to creep in ahead of the South Carolina vote on Saturday.
—This story was posted on Jan. 19 at 5:35 and was updated on Jan. 20 at 6:17 a.m.