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Opinion: Romney’s 15 percent problem

Mitt Romney held a brief campaign stop Tuesday morning in Florence, S.C., and then bolted to a fundraiser in Manhattan, days before Palmetto State voters cast their ballots in a primary Romney hopes to win so he can wrap up the nomination fight for good. Yet in the few fateful minutes he spoke with reporters before his flight, the ever-cautious and disciplined candidate launched a grenade that could stop him from winning not only the primary on Saturday, but ultimately the nomination as well.

Piercing a significant hole in his own argument of electability, Romney admitted he pays far less in taxes than most Americans think a rich man does or should — the equivalent of campaign gold to President Obama and the Democrats. Under pressure to release his tax returns, Romney said Monday he would likely do so in April, clearly the time the former Massachusetts governor believes he will become his party’s nominee. But Tuesday, Romney revealed he pays a 15 percent rate on his investments, much lower than rates paid on income. He made it worse when he also laughed off money earned in speaking fees as “not very much” — though his is a sum totaling nearly $375,000 that has been reported for a one-year period.

{mosads}Mitt’s many money gaffes are a political ad-maker’s dream — last summer he told some unemployed Floridians he too was unemployed; he tried to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 during a debate; and then, just this month, he said he too once worried about getting a pink slip and that he likes firing people. Some of the remarks were taken out of context, and they surely didn’t stop him from winning a nearly 40 percent victory margin in New Hampshire last week. But with hours to go before Republican voters in South Carolina choose to end or extend the GOP presidential nominating contest, Romney is on the defensive. 

Obama will run not on his economic record, which has left unemployment still dangerously high, but against the GOP policies he argues have widened the gap between rich and poor and are destroying the middle class. The Bush tax cuts, set to expire weeks after the election Nov. 6, will take center stage in the campaign, and the GOP nominee will have to argue to a majority of Americans who favor more taxes for the wealthy why top earners should keep their tax cuts.

South Carolina Republicans, known to pick winners in their primary elections since 1980, favor Romney, according to polls, but the race is tightening. This last weekend it appeared former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) would get a boost from social conservative leaders who convened in Texas and blessed his candidacy by super-majority vote. Yet two days later participants were fighting, and accusations of ballot stuffing and other fraudulence by supporters of Newt Gingrich have rendered the exercise a joke. 

Gingrich is now exhorting The Ricks to leave the race so he can stop Romney on his own. No, said Santorum, referring to the former Speaker as “Congressman Gingrich” as he recounted Gingrich’s poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire and discounted Gingrich as too erratic. “He has this disconnection with reality that is very disconcerting for someone who wants to lead our country,” Santorum said.

Perry, under fire from government officials in Turkey for calling them terrorists at the Fox News debate Monday, is taking not-so-subtle swipes at Santorum, telling largely evangelical audiences in South Carolina that Santorum is a “good Catholic.” 

So much for a conservative consensus. Romney can still win a divided contest on Saturday. But after what he said this week, no one wants to place a $10,000 bet on it.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

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