By Stump Connolly

It was a week of treading water in the presidential race. President Obama and Mitt Romney bobbed atop a cesspool of economic bad news, the president buoyed by a return to the campaign trail in Ohio, and Romney occasionally slipping under, weighed down by his personal fortune of $190 million to $250 million.

Romney had the worst of it. It began with a Washington Post story on Bain Capital’s investment in firms that specialized in sending jobs done by Americans to call centers and factories overseas. The Romney camp protested that the investments took place after Romney left the firm in February 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. The Boston Globe then produced some 250 documents (including SEC filings) that showed he served as owner and chief executive officer of Bain until his partners bought him out in 2002.

Coming on the heels of earlier revelations in Vanity Fair and the Associated Press about Romney’s use of off-shore bank accounts, the crescendo of interest in how he amassed his fortune was so great that Romney took the unusual step of booking interviews on five separate TV networks Friday to repeat, over and over again, that he left active management of Bain in February 1999.

What’s Mitt Hiding?

But the damage had been done. If he was not an active partner, why was he paid $100,000 a year during that period? What residual profits did he get from the deals? When he released his 2010 tax returns during the primary––showing an effective tax rate of 13.9%––he promised to release his 2011 returns as soon as they were ready. The filing deadline was April 15. Where are they? Too complicated to fill out? Or too revealing? And why not release multiple years, as most presidential candidates have? Or the 12 years worth his father George Romney released in 1967?

By Tuesday, the Obama campaign was up in the swing states with a TV ad that asks, what’s Mitt hiding? “Tax havens, offshore accounts, carried interest. Mitt Romney has used every trick in the book. Romney admits that over the last two years he’s paid less than 15 percent in taxes on $43 million in income. Makes you wonder if some years he paid any taxes at all. We don’t know, because Romney has released just one full year of his tax returns and won’t release anything before 2010. What is Mitt Romney hiding?” SEE IT HERE

Romney’s reluctance to release his past tax returns even drew criticism from his own party. The editors of National Review put the case most cogently in an online editorial. “Romney may feel impatience with requirements that the political culture imposes on a presidential candidate that he feels are pointless (and inconvenient). But he’s a politician running for the highest office in the land, and his current posture is probably unsustainable. In all likelihood, he won’t be able to maintain a position that looks secretive and is a departure from campaign conventions. The only question is whether he releases more returns now, or later – after playing more defense on the issue and sustaining more hits. There will surely be a press feeding frenzy over new returns, but better to weather it in the middle of July. . . . By drawing out the argument over the returns, Romney is playing into the president’s hands.”

Obama’s “Ruthless Killing Machine”

Indeed, the Obama campaign has their opponent between a rock and a hard place. If he doesn’t now release past returns, he’s secretive; if he does, there’s all the more grist for the oppositional research team. Mark Halperin,  the co-author of Game Change who also publishes a daily email alert called The Page, is handing out a Godfather-like horse head in bed award to the Chicago headquarters for its “ruthless killing machine.”

“They have parceled out their opposition research in a manner both strategic and tactical, selecting specific news organizations at times of their choosing to maximize the drip-drip-drip of the twin stories,” he writes. “They have used left-leaning Web outfits as recipients of over-the-transom gifts as effectively (cumulatively) as the Romney campaign uses Drudge. And they have seen the Boston Globe use its credibility to drive a ton of news.”

“From the President, to Joe Biden, to senior White House aides, to the entire re-elect operation — there has been impressive coordination on every one of their Bain-tax return hits, and there’s no reason to think that the teamwork will stop,” he adds. “For now, without a doubt, Romney is losing on two fronts: the politico-media dialogue is not focused on the Obama economic record and Romney is being defined by the opposition.”

Chum in the Water

All these questions are chum in the water for the snarks in the press, who have little else to cover in these summer doldrums.  When they are all resolved, as surely they will be, the public will know Mitt Romney is a very rich man who, like all rich men, used all the available tax loopholes he could to reduce his tax burden. Instead of proving Romney’s business acumen, however, the slow release of his personal financial information and ham-handed explanation of his departure from Bain reinforces the sense that Romney will say––or not say––anything to be president. And that rap will stick to him long after the details of his taxes are forgotten.

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