1. Florida Politics

As Mitt Romney releases his tax returns, frontrunners seize on each other

TAMPA — On a day when Newt Gingrich complained about a subdued debate audience in Tampa and newly released income tax reports highlighted Mitt Romney's elite financial status and low tax rate, the frontrunners seized on two entities: Charlie Crist and Freddie Mac.

In St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Gingrich likened Romney to Crist, noting that they shared campaign advisers — and drew pushback from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

In Southwest Florida, Romney continued to hammer Gingrich's lucrative work for Freddie Mac, calling on the speaker to release more records about what he did for the housing loan backer.

But what drew much of the media attention Tuesday were Romney's own tax returns, belatedly released after pressure from his rivals.

He released two years of returns showing annual income of $21.6 million in 2010 and an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent. That's a lower tax rate than many Americans because most of his income is taxed as capital gains, rather than as earned income at rates of up to 35 percent.

He made about $3 million in charitable donations, including $1.5 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He closed a bank account in Switzerland in 2010, as he was entering the presidential race. He also kept money in the Cayman Islands. But Benjamin Ginsberg, the Romney campaign's legal counsel, said Romney didn't use any aggressive tax strategies to help reduce or defer his tax income.

"Gov. Romney has paid 100 percent of what he owes," Ginsberg said Tuesday.

His Republican rivals were quiet about the returns, though the issue of tax rates on wealthy investors is sure to be a topic for the general election.

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The Charlie Crist charge came the morning after a tough debate Monday night in Tampa. Gingrich stepped onto a podium at the Tick Tock Restaurant restaurant in St. Petersburg and touted one of his senior campaign advisers in Florida.

"As many of you know Jose Mallea is helping us with our campaign. He was Marco Rubio's campaign manager. We discovered last night that Mitt Romney has picked up Charlie Crist's campaign people," he said to yelps and a few boos. "That sort of tells you everything you needed to know about this contest."

Crist, the former governor and lifelong Republican who changed his registration to no-party affiliation while running for U.S. Senate in 2010, is still a whipping boy in Republican circles. One of Crist's top campaign advisers before his party switch is Stuart Stevens, now a senior adviser on the Romney campaign.

But the Crist connection is specious, and drew criticism from Rubio himself Tuesday.

"Mitt Romney is no Charlie Crist,'' said Rubio, who is neutral in the presidential primary and widely touted as a vice presidential contender. "Romney is a conservative and he was one of the first national Republican leaders to endorse me. He came to Florida, campaigned hard for me, and made a real difference in my race."

It's hard to find many veteran GOP campaign professionals who have not at some point actively supported or worked for Crist during his own 20-year political career, including Gingrich adviser Mallea who worked on Crist's education commissioner campaign in 2000.

Crist attended Monday's debate, and on Tuesday shrugged off Gingrich using him to criticize Romney. He can't vote in Florida's Jan. 31 primary (open only to registered Republicans), and Crist said he hadn't decided whether he'll vote for President Barack Obama or the Republican nominee in November.

"I'm enjoying learning about the candidates every day," Crist said.

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Romney had an uncharacteristically aggressive debate performance at the University of South Florida on Monday, calling Gingrich a "disgraced" former speaker of the House who had become an "influence peddler" in Washington. Gingrich, likewise, was uncharacteristically passive in the Tampa Bay Times/NBC News/National Journal/Florida Council of 100 debate and in a Fox News interview Tuesday, complained about members of the audience being instructed to remain quiet.

"We're going to serve notice on future debates that we won't tolerate — we're just not going to allow that to happen ... the media doesn't control free speech." Gingrich said. "The media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they've done in every debate."

Moderators usually ask debate audiences to keep quiet, though audiences in South Carolina were particularly raucous.

On Tuesday, Romney stopped at a shuttered drywall plant in Tampa to give an early rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union speech.

"He will give a nice speech with a lot of memorable phrases. But he won't give you the hard numbers. Like 9.9 — that's the unemployment rate in this state. Or 25 percent — that's the percentage of foreclosed homes in America that are right here in Florida. Or $15 trillion — that's the size of our national debt."

Then his campaign bus headed to the foreclosure capital of Florida to pound Obama and Gingrich again.

Standing in front of a foreclosed home in Lehigh Acres, he again brought up Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac, the loan backer that paid him $25,000 a month for consulting work. Gingrich at one point had said he was paid for his historical acumen.

"I'm waiting to see the history he wrote for Freddie Mac. Let's see what he was doing," Romney said.

Gingrich's bus rolled into an airplane hangar in Sarasota to thunderous applause from several thousand people, and he also took aim at the president.

"He doesn't seem to operate on the same planet you and I do," Gingrich said. "There's a sort of planet Obama somewhere out there."

Gingrich suggested Obama during his State of the Union Speech would try to blame his woes on former President George W. Bush. "This is the third year of his presidency, he needs to get over it," Gingrich said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.