Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich shake hands at the end of the Republican presidential… (David Goldman / Associated…)
Reporting from Orangeburg, S.C. — Mitt Romney opened the last full day of campaigning in South Carolina's high-stakes presidential primary Friday morning by dispatching allies to assail Newt Gingrich as a big-spending egomaniac, but faced new questions over his own refusal to release his tax returns unless he wins the GOP nomination.
Former Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire, a favorite Romney attack dog, picked up on Rick Santorum's criticism of the former House speaker's "grandiosity" in a drama-filled debate on Thursday.
"You can't have somebody that's really as irrational and perceives himself as Winston Churchill or the equivalent of Margaret Thatcher or Charles de Gaulle," Sununu told CNN. "And I think Rick Santorum put that in context as being one of Newt Gingrich's biggest problems."
The Romney campaign's heightened effort to damage Gingrich's standing in the campaign's final days comes as the former speaker's late surge in the polls threatens to block the former Massachusetts governor from winning South Carolina's primary Saturday. Romney had hoped to effectively seal the GOP nomination with a South Carolina victory that could make him a prohibitive favorite in the Jan. 31 contest in Florida and beyond.
Sununu, for one, did not sound optimistic about that prospect.
"This is a long slog," he said. "And the way the rules are structured this time, it's going to take a long time. We need 1,143 delegates in order to win the nomination. Gov. Romney is ready to take this forward."
Sununu also struggled to explain Romney's stumbles in responding to calls from Gingrich and others to release his tax returns ahead of the South Carolina vote.
Sununu told CNN that both Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had said in the debate that they would not release their tax returns. But Santorum did agree to release tax returns; only Paul has refused. Gingrich released one year of his tax returns on Thursday, leading Sununu to say Romney was being more forthcoming – despite his refusal to release them before April, when the nomination battle could be over.
"Mitt Romney said as soon as this year is done he's going to release them in multiple years," Sununu said. "You tell me which is the most transparent of all of those -- multiple years."
It would be "ridiculous," Sununu said, for Romney to "dribble stuff out for three or four months" with a release of old tax returns now, followed by his 2011 returns in April.
"The idea is to nominate somebody who's going to be president of the United States," he said. "Are you going to be surprised seeing that Mitt Romney was successful in his taxes?"
Romney's campaign has called on Gingrich to release documents on the inquiry that led him to agree in 1997 to pay a $300,000 fine for violations of House ethics rules.
Romney's campaign also organized a conference call Friday morning with three congressmen to denounce Gingrich's support of "earmarks" to pay for the pet projects of federal lawmakers, saying it showed he was not a fiscal conservative.
"He is really the granddaddy of earmarks," Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) told reporters on the call.
Romney set off this morning for campaign stops today in Gilbert, North Charleston and Greenville.