Reporting from Gilbert, S.C. —
Deflecting calls to release his tax returns, Mitt Romney called on Newt Gingrich to make public confidential files from the inquiry that led to a $300,000 fine against the former House speaker for breaking congressional ethics rules.
"I think over 80% of Republican congressmen voted to reprimand the speaker of the House -- first time in history," Romney told reporters after a rain-soaked rally outside a barn at Harmon's Tree Farm here in central South Carolina.
Nancy Pelosi, now House minority leader, "has the full record of that ethics investigation," Romney said. "You know it's going to get out before the general election. Sure, he ought to get it out now."
Romney's challenge to his chief rival came as polls show Gingrich rapidly narrowing the former Massachusetts governor's lead in the South Carolina primary Saturday, thanks partly to the former speaker's forceful performances in televised debates.
At a drama-filled debate in North Charleston on Thursday, Gingrich criticized Romney for resisting calls that he release his tax returns, saying: "If there's anything in there that is going to help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination. And if there's nothing in there … why not release it?"
Gingrich released his 2010 federal income tax return during the debate, but the two other major contenders for the GOP nomination, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, have made none of their returns public. Santorum has pledged to release some tax returns when he gets back home from the campaign trail.
At his news conference, Romney struggled to explain why he first refused to release his tax returns, then, under pressure from rivals and the media, agreed later that he might release his 2011 returns in April, then finally said he would release multiple years of returns in April. He has declined to say how many years.
"At the very beginning I indicated that I hadn't any plans to release my tax returns, and then it became clear that that was of great interest," he said.
He said his candidate financial disclosure forms tell the public "a heck of a lot more about my finances than will the tax returns ... so I felt that was more than sufficient."
With all the interest in disclosure, he said, he decided to "release the tax returns when they can all be released at one time."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was campaigning with Romney here in her home county, Lexington, said voters were not talking about tax returns.
"I've heard more people wondering why you guys aren't asking about ethics reports and ethics problems with the Gingrich campaign -- nobody's talking about tax returns," she said.