Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich's fight for Florida and the states beyond stayed at a high boil Tuesday as Romney released tax returns showing annual income topping $20 million — including a now-closed Swiss bank account — and Gingrich insisted his high-paid consulting work for a mortgage giant that contributed to the housing crisis didn't include lobbying.
After a night of mutual sniping in a debate, the two leading GOP presidential candidates tried to turn the arguments over their various business dealings to his own advantage. Romney's release of two years' worth of tax documents, showing him at an elite level even among the nation's richest 1 percent, kept the focus on the two men's money and how they earned it.
Romney's income put him in the top 0.006 percent of Americans, according to Internal Revenue Service data from 2009, the most recent year available. His net worth has been estimated as high as $250 million.
As the former Massachusetts governor relented to pressure and released more than 500 pages of tax documents, Gingrich kept up the heat, saying Romney was “outrageously dishonest” for accusing him of influence peddling for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
“I don't own any Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock. He does, so presumably he was getting richer,” Gingrich told Fox News on Tuesday.
The specter of well-off Gingrich and wealthier Romney feuding over money matters pleased Rick Santorum, who lags in polls for next Tuesday's Florida primary but hopes to benefit from the dust-up as the race moves on. He told MSNBC: “The other two candidates have some severe flaws.”
Striking out in two directions, Romney planned to offer advance criticism of President Barack Obama's Tuesday night State of the Union address, then focus on Florida's housing woes in an event sure to again highlight Gingrich's $25,000 monthly retainer from Freddie Mac.
The former House speaker said Romney's charges were ironic, given that it was revealed after Monday's debate that Romney himself was an investor in both Freddie Mac and its sister entity, Fannie Mae.
Gingrich, a candidate once left for dead, stood before thousands in a U.S. flag-draped airport hangar in Sarasota brimming with confidence about his chances of winning the GOP nomination. He barely mentioned Romney in two events, though he went hard at Obama as the president prepared for his big speech.
Gingrich said Obama should stop blaming his Republican predecessor for the country's economic woes.
“This is the fourth year of his presidency. He needs to get over it,” Gingrich said. “A friend of mine says, 'He has shifted from Yes We Can to Why We Couldn't.'”
Gingrich's campaign also announced it had pulled in $2 million, mostly online, since winning the South Carolina primary on Saturday. Gingrich planned to pad his campaign account with a series of fundraisers this week.
Records released by Romney's campaign show he closed a bank account in Switzerland in 2010, as he was entering the presidential race. He also kept money in the Cayman Islands, another spot popular with investors sheltering their income from U.S. taxes. But Benjamin Ginsberg, the Romney campaign's legal counsel, said Romney didn't use any aggressive tax strategies to help reduce or defer his tax income.
“Gov. Romney has paid 100 percent of what he owes,” Ginsberg said Tuesday.
Romney paid about $3 million on nearly $22 million in income in 2010 and indicated his 2011 taxes would be about the same, $3.2 million on nearly $21 million in income.
During the debate, Romney predicted his tax information would generate chatter but not any surprises, saying what he paid was “entirely legal and fair.”
Romney had declined to disclose any tax releases until he came under mounting criticism from his rivals.
In 2010, he donated a combined $3 million to the Mormon Church and other charitable causes. His effective tax rate was about 14 percent, the records showed. For 2011, he'll pay an effective tax rate of about 15.4 percent, a level far lower than standard rates for high-income earners, reflecting the lower rate for long-term capital gains.
The tax records may silence Gingrich and others who argued that Republican voters should know the details of Romney's wealth before they select their presidential nominee and not after. But it also could open up new lines of attack.
After Gingrich's overwhelming victory in South Carolina, Romney can ill afford to lose Florida's Jan. 31 primary, and he showcased a new aggression from the opening moments of the debate. He said Gingrich had “resigned in disgrace” from Congress after four years as speaker and then had spent the next 15 years “working as an influence peddler.”
In particular, he referred to the contract Gingrich's consulting firm had with Freddie Mac, a government-backed mortgage giant that Romney said “did a lot of bad for a lot of people and you were working there.”
“I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying,” Gingrich retorted emphatically, adding that his firm had hired an expert to explain to employees “the bright line between what you can do as a citizen and what you do as a lobbyist.”
Rep. Ron Paul, who's bypassing Florida in favor of smaller, less expensive states, returned to Texas after Monday's debate. Santorum will appeal to the tea party to help revive his candidacy, appearing at two tea party events.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt and Brian Bakst in Florida and Connie Cass, Jack Gillum, Stephen Braun and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington contributed to this report.