Newt Gingrich greets supporters following a campaign town hall meeting… (David Goldman / Associated…)
Reporting from Florence, S.C. — Newt Gingrich on Tuesday questioned why Mitt Romney has not released his tax returns, arguing that if the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination has nothing to hide, he ought to make the documents public before South Carolina holds its first-in-the-South primary on Saturday.
"Either there's nothing there, so why isn't he releasing them, or there's something there, so why is he hiding them?" Gingrich told reporters here after holding a town hall at an art gallery. "I believe we have the right to know. Therefore, he owes us the knowledge. If there's nothing there, why not release it this week?"
He warned that if there is a problem in the tax returns, President Obama's campaign will discover it during the general-election campaign.
"You do not want a nominee who blows up in September, because in September you have no choice," Gingrich said. "If somebody has a fatal weakness, you better find out about it before they get the nomination."
The issue of Romney's tax returns came up in a debate Monday night, when the former Massachusetts governor hedged when asked whether he would release the documents.
Gingrich, who appeared buoyant coming off a sharp debate performance at the Myrtle Beach face-off, reiterated his pledge that if he were the GOP nominee, he would challenge Obama to a series of seven three-hour-long debates with a time-keeper but no moderator, modeled on the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
A supporter, asking what Gingrich would do if the president wouldn't agree to the debates, said, "We've got to bloody Obama's nose."
Gingrich responded, "I don't want to bloody his nose, I want to knock him out."
The former House speaker, once a front-runner for the Republican nomination, faltered badly in Iowa and New Hampshire and is pinning his candidacy on a win in South Carolina. Recent polling shows Gingrich in second place in the Palmetto State, but losing by double-digits to Romney.
Gingrich told supporters that a surprise win here would guarantee that he would be the nominee, but that conservatives supporting Rick Santorum or Rick Perry must coalesce behind him in order to avoid splintering and handing a win to Romney, who he called a moderate who would fare poorly against Obama in debates.
"We're looking forward to winning on Saturday. I think we have a very real chance to win, and if you consolidate the three conservative candidates, we clearly would have a huge margin over Romney," he said. "The challenge to me is to convince conservatives to come home and have a single candidate on Saturday. And I will work very hard over the next four days to do that, and I think there's a very good possibility we will."
Gingrich reiterated that he believes a vote for Santorum or Perry is effectively a vote for Romney. Perry, the Texas governor, has become an after-thought in the race here, but Santorum is a more direct challenge. Asked what differentiates the two, Gingrich noted that Santorum lost his last Pennsylvania Senate race by a huge margin, while Gingrich helped achieve a long list of national GOP victories, including the capture of the House of Representatives in 1994.
"I actually know how to design a national campaign. I actually know how to set up a conservative alternative to Obama in a way that will be very, very effective and very strategic," Gingrich said. "Santorum is a nice guy, but he doesn't have any of the knowledge of how to do any of this."