TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney ramped up his Florida offensive on Tuesday, releasing his tax returns and offering an alternative State of the Union address, as his rival Newt Gingrich told voters that Romney is too liberal for the Republican Party.
Romney, trying to reinvigorate his presidential campaign after Gingrich crushed him Saturday in South Carolina, had two goals: End the furor over his taxes and convince voters that he's best-equipped to challenge President Barack Obama.
But Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives who's leading statewide polls a week before the Jan. 31 GOP primary here, fought back in his trademark bombastic style.
He vowed that if Obama loses, by the time the president gets back home to Chicago Gingrich "will have dismantled about 40 percent of his administration." He slammed Romney for hiring people who had worked for former Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate whom many Republicans here loathe.
Romney has been wounded politically by his refusal to release his tax returns. He relented Tuesday, putting more than 500 pages of information on the Internet and making his financial advisers available for a lengthy media briefing.
The former Massachusetts governor made an estimated $20.9 million in 2011 and expects to pay $3.2 million in taxes, a 15.4 percent rate. In 2010, he earned $21.65 million and paid $3 million in taxes, a 13.9 percent rate.
Romney earned almost all his income from dividends and interest on investments, taxed at 15 percent. Wage income can be taxed as high as 35 percent. He took about $7 million in charitable deductions, including $4.1 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church.
Romney tried to steer voter attention to his differences with Obama. At a Tampa drywall plant, he told about 300 supporters that Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night would be full of "partisan planks for his re-election campaign."
Romney's remarks had the ring of a nomination acceptance speech.
"President Obama has amassed an actual record of debt, decline and disappointment," Romney charged. "This president's agenda made these troubled times last longer. He and his allies made it harder for the economy to recover."
Later, standing in front of a foreclosed home in Lehigh Acres, Florida's foreclosure capital, Romney promised that he'd scale back government regulations to improve the housing market.
Romney described the 2012 bank-regulation law, known as the Dodd-Frank Act, as a "massive pile of regulations" that made it tougher for banks to refinance loans and essentially encouraged foreclosures.
"The banks aren't bad people," Romney said. "They're just overwhelmed right now."
The former Massachusetts governor also pointed to the human toll of the housing crisis, using the nightmare foreclosure experience of Chris Davis, a 33-year-old YMCA worker, husband of a schoolteacher and father of a 5-year-old boy. Davis's bank tried to foreclose, then granted him a new mortgage, then tried to foreclose again.
"This is the kind of thing that's happening all over Florida," Romney said. "One-quarter of the homes in foreclosure in America are in Florida."
One spectator, Terri Mann, said she wasn't sure whom she'd vote for. She likes former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum because he's consistent. And she appreciates Romney because he's a "good guy."
Mann, 50, said she's "nervous" about Gingrich because he's unpredictable, but she likes that he's tough and smart.
"We all love Newt because he can beat the crap out of Obama on the debate stage," Mann said. "Newt says what conservatives have been feeling for a long time."
Gingrich offered a freewheeling contrast to Romney's steady style.
Angered that the audience at Monday night's Tampa debate was told not to applaud or cheer, he said he might not participate in future debates if those rules apply.
"We're going to serve notice on future debates ... we're just not going to allow that to happen," Gingrich told Fox News. "The media doesn't control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to. It's almost silly." Gingrich benefitted from audience ovations during last week's two South Carolina debates.
The former congressman from Georgia started his campaign day at the Tick Tock Restaurant in St. Petersburg, a popular political stop, then addressed more than 3,000 at a hangar at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.
Gingrich criticized Romney for hiring Crist's staffers. Among them is Stuart Stevens, chief Romney strategist who had the same job for Crist during his 2010 Senate run. Gingrich tied Crist to Romney's record, recalling how Romney once supported abortion rights, gay rights and gun control.
"That makes him a moderate in Massachusetts, but it makes him pretty liberal in the Republican primary," Gingrich said. "That probably explains why he hired Charlie Crist's staff."
Gingrich's decision to bash Romney for hiring former Crist loyalists doesn't seem to be sitting well with Sen. Marco Rubio, the popular Florida Republican who drove Crist out of the party before beating him at the polls in 2010.
Said Rubio: "Mitt Romney is no Charlie Crist. 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."
Jay Rothstein, a Staten Island, N.Y., native now living in Bradenton, said he attended the rally because he hasn't decided between Gingrich and Romney. "I can't stand Obama," he said, but he noted that Gingrich's checkered past "may knock him out."
Santorum addressed voters at a waterfront park in Punta Gorda.
"Sometimes we need a Jimmy Carter to get a Ronald Reagan," Santorum said, a reference to Republican Reagan's defeat of incumbent Democrat Carter in 1980.
"I believe we can solve all our problems through our churches and families," Santorum said.
(Lightman and Clark of the Washington Bureau reported from Florida. Caputo reports for The Miami Herald. Richard Dymond and Laura Morel of The Bradenton Herald also contributed.)
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