Romney campaign unable to shake Democratic attacks on tax records

Republicans are pushing back strongly against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) claims that Mitt Romney had failed to pay taxes for multiple years, but the controversy and Democratic pressure on the GOP candidate to release more of his tax records shows little sign of dying down.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) both took to the Sunday morning talk shows to accuse Reid of “lying.” But despite the GOP criticism, the Romney campaign appeared unable to move past the debate over the presumptive nominee’s personal finances.

“As far as Harry Reid is concerned, listen, I know you might want to go down that road, I'm not going to respond to a dirty liar who hasn't filed a single page of tax returns himself, complains about people with money but lives in the Ritz Carlton here down the street," Priebus said when asked about Reid's claim that a Bain Capital investor had told him Romney had gone 10 years without paying income taxes.

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"So if that's on the agenda, I'm not going to go there. This is just a made-up issue. And the fact that we're going to spend any time talking about it is ridiculous," Priebus added.

But talk did focus on the issue — and while Democrats avoided embracing Reid’s specific claims, the discussion gave them the chance to hammer Romney once again for his refusal to release more than two years of tax returns for public scrutiny.

“The Romney campaign and Gov. Romney can resolve this in 10 seconds — they can release the tax returns," top Obama adviser David Axelrod said when asked on Fox News Sunday about Reid’s comments. "They gave 23 years of tax returns [to the] John McCain campaign [in 2008], they've given one year of tax returns to the American people. … Why don't they just put this to rest? Why is he hiding?"

The situation is a lose-lose for Romney, some Republican strategists say. They fear the attacks are likely to continue as long as Romney doesn’t release additional returns. But they also caution that Democrats found plenty to attack in the tax returns Romney did put out, including offshore bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. Romney has said he won’t release additional returns to provide more fodder for Democratic attacks.

One GOP strategist also warns that hitting back at Reid fails to damage Romney’s real opponent in the run up to the November election: President Obama.

“They're trying to fight back at Reid so it backfires on Obama. What makes Reid such a dangerous weapon is he doesn't care,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell told The Hill. “Reid is putting Romney in a tough situation. When you're slapping back at Harry Reid it keeps the issue in the public eye. They're going to have to make a determination of how much longer they want to keep sticking to their guns.”

O’Connell, though, suggests a cautious approach for the Romney camp.

“There may come a time when they do need to release those tax returns but they need to play this one out first,” he advised.

Romney has personally responded to Reid’s attacks, calling on the Senate majority leader to “put up or shut up” earlier in the week, and a number of people on both sides of the aisle have criticized Reid for his unverified accusations.

But the Nevada senator has also gleefully refused to back down, and shown he’s willing to take the heat in order to keep Romney’s taxes in the news.

The eagerness of Team Obama to continue hitting Romney on taxes this weekend also suggests that the campaign sees little risk of blowback against the president himself from Reid’s charges.

The former Massachusetts governor has faced questions on the issue for months — his GOP primary opponents criticized him for failing to disclose his taxes and Democrats have harped on it in their effort to make his wealth a major campaign issue.

While Republicans blasted Reid for his unsubstantiated claims, others also acknowledged Sunday that the ongoing fight is hurting Romney. 

Top GOP strategist Ed Rollins said on Fox News that questions about what is in Romney’s tax returns would continue through the fall if he didn’t release more years — a sentiment previously voiced by other Republicans including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and conservative columnist George Will.

"I think at this point of time it's going to dog him all the way and he needs to get it behind him," said Rollins, who managed the presidential campaigns of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and worked on former President Reagan’s reelection team. "I think he needs to release more taxes. Absolutely."

"I would not put out 20 years and I obviously wouldn't respond to anything Harry Reid states," he said. "At the end of the day you come to the point where you basically give a little bit more and you move forward. And he's going to do that. Two years is not enough, obviously."