Republican Mitt Romney scrambled for footing on Wednesday, as his once formidable lead in the South Carolina presidential primary appeared to be shrinking and he faced increased pressure to reveal more about his vast financial holdings.
A new CNN poll said Romney's lead over rival Newt Gingrich ahead of Saturday's crucial primary in South Carolina had shrunk to 10 percentage points, 33 percent to 23 percent, down from a 19-point lead two weeks ago.
The results, and a clear sense of urgency in the Romney campaign, suggested that Gingrich's calls for Romney to release his tax returns and efforts to brand the former Massachusetts governor as an out-of-touch elitist could be resonating in South Carolina, where the jobless rate is near 10 percent.
Gingrich, a former U.S. House of Representatives speaker, seems to have found an effective line of attack in recent days, drawing cheers during speeches in which he has emphasized the need to create jobs.
At one campaign appearance on Wednesday, Gingrich called Democratic President Barack Obama's rejection of the Keystone oil pipeline project a "stunningly stupid" decision that would cost thousands of jobs.
For Gingrich, it has been a subtle pivot from a poorly received strategy of calling Romney a job killer for Romney's time leading Bain Capital, a private equity firm that overhauled companies and sometimes laid off workers in the process.
Romney, the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination to face Obama in the Nov. 6 elections, added to his problems on Tuesday.
The former executive with an estimated worth of $270 million acknowledged this week that his income tax rate is about 15 percent — well below the rates paid by most wage-earning Americans.
Romney's rate is lower because most of his income flows from investments, and under the U.S. tax code, capital gains are taxed at 15 percent.
His comment put Romney at the forefront of a national debate over the fairness of U.S. income tax rates, a discussion Gingrich happily jumped into on Wednesday by declaring that his tax rate was 31 percent.
Romney's revelation came after Monday night's candidates debate in which Romney — who has long been reluctant to release his tax returns — said for the first time he would release them, but not until April, the deadline for filing federal returns but well after most key nominating contests.
Questions over Romney's finances and wealth have taken some of the glow off of his campaign, which just a few days ago seemed headed toward an easy victory in South Carolina that would be a huge step toward the nomination.
Romney's efforts to get away from the tax issue and return to his campaign message of adding jobs in a tepid economy, took another hit Wednesday morning when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a key Romney ally, urged him to release his income tax forms.
Christie played down the notion that the forms would reveal much about Romney's fortune that isn't already known.
"Let's get all the facts out there. See what the tax returns say. And I think everybody will know that the story is probably much ado about nothing," Christie said on the MSNBC program "Morning Joe."
Christie suggested that the attention being paid to Romney's finances was mostly a political drama aimed at undermining the front-runner before the South Carolina primary, the third contest in the state-by-state battle for the primary.
Some Republican voters said on Wednesday they did not see Romney's tax returns or finances as big issues.
"I think it's political dirt," said Don Ethier, 66, an undecided voter in Spartanburg. "They're needing something to discredit him, and they're making something out of nothing."
Other voters, however, thought the scrutiny of Romney's finances was warranted.
"It's certainly fair, but I think we have so many other issues that we need to address," said Ruth Tallant, 64, another undecided voter from Spartanburg. "I think we need to concentrate on the economy and jobs."
ROMNEY STRIKES BACK
On Wednesday across South Carolina, there was one sure sign that the Romney campaign was feeling pressure from Gingrich.
As it has done previously to try to stem any perceived momentum by Gingrich or another rival, Romney's campaign unleashed ads and surrogates to attack them.
They cast Gingrich as an "unreliable leader" and "undisciplined" during his tenure as speaker of the House.
In one of Romney's Internet ads released Wednesday, former Rep. Susan Molinari described Gingrich's style as speaker as "leadership by chaos."
"The last time Newt Gingrich was the head of the Republican Party as speaker, he became so controversial, he helped re-elect a Democratic president," Molinari said, referring to Bill Clinton.
Romney himself also went after Gingrich on Wednesday, belittling Gingrich's claim that he helped to create millions of jobs as a congressman when Republican Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s.
"A congressman taking credit for creating jobs is like [former U.S. vice president] Al Gore taking credit for inventing the Internet," Romney said. "Businesses create jobs."
PALIN WEIGHS IN
In CNN's South Carolina poll, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was in third place at 16 percent support, followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul (13 percent) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (6 percent).
Gingrich and Santorum are battling to put together a conservative coalition big enough to top Romney, who still hasn't won over some of the most conservative Republicans.
In another boost to Gingrich, Sarah Palin of Alaska, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008, said she would vote for him if she lived in South Carolina.
That endorsement might win Gingrich some votes from backers of the tea party, which seeks limited government and lower taxes.
Gingrich received high marks from Republican voters in South Carolina for his performance in Monday's debate, during which he received a standing ovation from the crowd for defending his decision to call Obama "the food stamp president."
Another debate is set for Thursday night.
"Virtually everybody agrees that Monday night I won the debate decisively," Gingrich told CNN on Wednesday.
Adam Temple, a South Carolina-based Republican consultant who is not supporting any of the candidates, said: "I don't know if there's enough time for [Gingrich] to pull it off" and defeat Romney.
The race is getting closer, Temple said, and Gingrich has "got a window. I just don't know if it will stay open long enough."
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