FLORENCE, S.C. — Mitt Romney tried Tuesday to defuse a growing controversy dogging his front-runner campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination by saying that he "probably" pays a tax rate of 15 percent, far lower than the 35 percent top rate one might assume that a multimillionaire pays.
Romney, whose wealth is estimated at around $250 million, has come under fire for not making his tax returns public, as presidential candidates traditionally do. He said he pays an effective rate "probably closer to the 15 percent rate than anything," and that he would release his tax return for 2011 in April. He did not say whether he would release any earlier returns.
He also characterized as "not very much" the $374,327 he reported earning in speaking fees last year, though that sum would, by itself, very nearly catapult most American families into the top 1 percent of the country's earners.
Romney mentioned the 15 percent figure in response to a question at a news conference. In the last decade, he said, his income has come largely from investments rather than earned income. Since Bush-era tax cuts went into effect, dividends and capital gains are subject to a 15 percent tax rate; the top rate on ordinary income is 35 percent.
President Barack Obama reported paying an effective federal tax rate of 26 percent on his 2010 family income.
Newt Gingrich, who has emerged of late as Romney's top agitator, still wanted to see Romney's full tax return now.
"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. "What is he saying to the people of South Carolina? You're not important enough for me to release my taxes? Nor are the people of Florida?"
South Carolina votes Saturday, and Florida on Jan. 31.
Gingrich and fellow candidates Rick Perry and Rick Santorum took particular issue with the April timing of Romney's planned release, which could come after he has secured the GOP nomination
Gingrich warned that if Romney's tax returns contain some problem, Obama's campaign would exploit it in the fall. "You do not want a nominee who blows up in September, because in September you have no choice," Gingrich said.
Romney did not release his tax returns when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
Gingrich, Romney and Perry campaigned at separate events on Tuesday in Florence.
As he campaigned in South Carolina, Santorum was on the attack, branding Romney a liberal, saying Gingrich's policy positions have been "all over the place," and laughing that Ron Paul has been running for president "since 1938."
Information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.