ORMOND BEACH, Fla. - Mitt Romney, scrambling to prevent an embarrassing loss in South Carolina from crippling him in Florida, began recalibrating his campaign yesterday with sharper attacks on Newt Gingrich and a pledge to quickly release some tax returns.
The former Massachusetts governor conceded that he erred in not releasing his tax returns earlier. He said he planned to post his 2010 returns online tomorrow in an attempt to bury the swirling questions about his finances that overshadowed his campaign for the past week.
“We made a mistake holding off as long as we did,’’ Romney said yesterday on Fox News Sunday. “It was a distraction. We want to get back to the real issues in the campaign.
“It was not a great week for me,’’ he added.
After what has already been a rollicking nominating contest - with different winners for each of the first three contests - the Republican Party began to prepare yesterday for a long and bitter race. Now that Gingrich has emerged as the clear alternative to Romney, the outcome in Florida on Jan. 31 will set the course for a race that may drag on throughout the spring.
The four remaining contenders, Gingrich, Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul will meet tonight in Tampa for another debate. Television stations across Florida are preparing for a big-spending ad blitz.
The Romney camp intensified its criticism of Gingrich in an effort to stop his surge. The former Massachusetts governor reminded voters that Gingrich was deposed in 1997 by his House colleagues over an ethics violation. And some of Romney’s supporters raised questions about Gingrich’s marital infidelities, saying moral character should be a consideration for Republican voters.
“We’re guaranteed scandal with Gingrich. We can’t let this lack of integrity, ‘I’m going to have an affair with my secretary,’ go to the wind,’’ Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and top Romney supporter, said in an interview. “We can’t cede the moral high ground to the Obama family.’’
“Republicans were quite infuriated with the affair John Edwards had,’’ he said. “We were infuriated with how Bill Clinton treated the White House. It shouldn’t be OK when a Republican is doing the same thing.’’
Gingrich sought to build on the momentum from his double-digit South Carolina victory by ratcheting up his attacks on Romney and Washington power brokers. A power broker and longtime Washington figure in his own right, he presented himself as someone who will nonetheless upset the status quo.
He said that his South Carolina win showed he had tapped into a deep vein of “anger at the national establishment.’’
“I’m happy to be in the tradition of Ronald Reagan as the outsider who scares the Republican establishment and, frankly, after the mess they’ve made of things, maybe they should be shaken up pretty badly,’’ Gingrich said.
Republicans said Romney needs to improve his performance if he wants to prevent Gingrich from causing further damage in Florida. It is astonishing, they said, that he allowed the former 10-term congressman and speaker of the House, who lives just outside Washington, to seize the outsider mantle.
“He needs to get in touch with the fact that this is a blood sport,’’ Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant who is unaligned, said of Romney. “The voters are not going to reward you for being the nicest guy in the room. They aren’t going to say, ‘What a pleasant fellow Mitt Romney is, I’m going to vote for him.’ We’re going to take the guy with the sharp knife every time.’’
Romney appeared to heed the growing calls of urgency from his allies in the party. He brought a feistier tone to a rally here last night, even telling a group of protesters to “take a hike.’’ He turned his focus repeatedly to Gingrich.
“He was a leader for four years as speaker of the House,’’ Romney said. “At the end of four years it was ruled that he was a failed leader, and he had to resign in disgrace. I don’t know if you knew that.’’
Romney continued to call on Gingrich to release records related to the consulting work he did for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac and sought to link Gingrich to the housing crisis, which has hit Florida particularly hard.
“He said he’s a historian. I would like him to release his records,’’ Romney said. “What was his work product there? What was he doing at Freddie Mac? Because Freddie Mac figures in very prominently to the fact that people of Florida have seen home values go down. It’s time to turn that around.’’
Yesterday Gingrich took a victory lap around the Sunday morning TV talk shows. He said during those appearances that Romney is in no position to be taking the moral high ground on transparency. He brought up disclosures by the Globe last year that members of Romney’s staff in the Massachusetts State House had purchased the hard drives from their computers and taken them away at the end of Romney’s term in 2006.
“For Governor Romney to decide to make this a big issue . . . when his staff apparently cleaned the computers when they left the governorship - and when we know nothing about how they developed Romneycare - I think is starting a fight in an area that he isn’t necessarily going to prosper in,’’ Gingrich said on CNN. “But I’m happy to.’’
The Globe reported two months ago that 11 of Romney’s aides took the unusual step of purchasing state-issued hard drives at the end of Romney’s term as governor in 2006.
Last week, Romney resisted demands that he release his tax returns before April, saying he wanted to avoid “drip by drip’’ criticism from Republican rivals during the primary and from Democrats in the spring, should he win the nomination. But his refusal to make the records public led Romney’s rivals to ask what he might be hiding and cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the candidate’s vast wealth, investments, and tax rate.
Romney, whose fortune is estimated at between $190 million and $250 million, acknowledged last week that he pays an approximately 15 percent tax rate, and described as “not very much’’ the $374,327 he reported earning in speaking fees last year.
He said yesterday that he would release his 2010 returns and an estimate for 2011, but he suggested that there would be few revelations. He said he donated 10 percent of his income to the Mormon Church.