Mitt Romney campaigns in Ohio. Trying to fend off Democrats' criticism… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
GREER, S.C. — Trying to defuse Democratic criticism of his refusal to release more tax returns, Mitt Romney said Thursday that he paid a federal tax rate of at least 13% in each of the last 10 years, and his wife, Ann, said there would be no further tax disclosures lest the couple become a bigger target for critics.
President Obama's reelection campaign has made the tax rates paid by his Republican challenger a central part of his case against Romney's plan to revive the economy. In his advertising, Obama has highlighted the 14% tax rate that Romney paid on $20 million in income in 2010, saying his rival wants the middle class to cover the cost of new tax cuts for millionaires.
Earlier this year, Romney released his 2010 return and an estimate of his 2011 filing, pledging to release the full document once it was completed. A campaign spokeswoman said that he would make good on his promise, despite his wife's remarks.
Though he has declined to release the years of returns that other candidates have offered, Romney told ABC News in an interview last month that he would be happy to check whether he had ever paid a lower rate. But since then, his campaign has refused to answer the question.
At a news conference Thursday, Romney was asked again.
"I just have to say, given the challenges that America faces — 23 million people out of work, Iran about to become nuclear, one out of six Americans in poverty — the fascination with taxes I paid I find to be very small-minded," he said.
He went on to say that he went back and checked his tax rates.
"Over the past 10 years, I never paid less than 13%," he said. "I think the most recent year is 13.6 or something like that."
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the candidate was referring solely to federal income taxes.
The Obama campaign has seized on Romney's tax rate as an example of what it calls the unfairness of the tax code. Because most of Romney's income derives from investments, his tax rate falls well below that paid by many middle-class families. Obama, who has released 12 years of tax returns, paid 20.5% last year on less income than Romney reported.
Romney was speaking to reporters outside a private air terminal just after his chartered plane landed here for the last stop on a two-day fundraising swing across the Deep South. He made a presentation on what he described as the harm that elderly Americans are suffering as a result of $716 billion in cuts that Obama has made in the projected growth of Medicare spending, marking up a white board on an easel to illustrate his points.
"This is going to be a big issue in places where there are a lot of seniors," Romney said.
The cuts, which Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul D. Ryanof Wisconsin, included in a federal budget plan that serves as the Republican Party's election-year agenda, do not reduce the amount of anyone's healthcare coverage. The bulk of the reductions come from cutting government reimbursement rates for hospitals, nursing homes and other care providers.
Romney's remarks on Medicare and taxes reflected his continuing diversion this week from what was once his campaign's central focus: His attacks on Obama's economic record.
Ann Romney added fuel to the tax debate in an interview that aired Thursday on NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams." It was taped on Romney's recent visit to Wales, her ancestral home, during the Summer Olympics in London.
To Romney's evident irritation, correspondent Natalie Morales asked why she and her husband would not be more transparent by releasing more than their 2010 tax returns and the estimate for 2011.
"Have you seen how we're attacked?" Romney asked. "Have you seen what's happened?"
"Are you angry that it's been in the press?" Morales asked. "I mean, should you not be questioned about your finances?"
"We have been transparent to what's legally required of us," Romney said. "But the more we release, the more we get attacked, the more we get questions, the more we get pushed. We have done what's legally required, and there's going to be no more tax releases given."
For its part, the Obama campaign said the public should not take Romney at his word on his tax rates prior to 2010.
"We have a simple message for him: Prove it," Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said. "Even though he's invested millions in foreign tax havens, offshore shell corporations and a Swiss bank account, he's still asking the American people to trust him."
Some Democrats — most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada — have claimed Romney paid far less in taxes, but they have yet to offer any substantiation.
"Harry Reid's charge is totally false," Romney said Thursday.
Finnegan reported from Greer and Abcarian from Los Angeles.