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GOP Debate Focus On Tax Returns [VIDEO]

 Republican presidential candidates former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) appear before the NBC News, National Journal, Tampa Bay Times GOP debate held at the University of South Florida
Republican presidential candidates former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) appear before the NBC News, National Journal, Tampa Bay Times GOP debate held at the University of South Florida ( Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Mitt Romney’s tax returns and Newt Gingrich’s business dealings are likely to remain at center stage of the increasingly contentious Republican presidential primary campaign in Florida.

Romney predicted during a sometimes heated debate that his 2010 tax returns and an early report on his taxes for last year will generate chatter but not any surprises. “You’ll see my income, how much taxes I’ve paid, how much I’ve paid to charity,” he said on the debate stage Monday night. “Will it be an article? Yeah. But is it entirely legal and fair? Absolutely. I’m proud of the fact that I pay a lot of taxes.”

Romney earned $21.7 million income in 2010, most of it from his investments, according to records his campaign released within hours of the debate’s conclusion. He donated a combined $3 million to charitable causes and the Mormon Church and paid about $3 million in federal income taxes for an effective tax rate of about 14 percent, the records showed. For 2011, he’ll pay about $3.2 million with an effective tax rate of about 15.4 percent, the campaign said.

The tax records may silence Gingrich and others who argued that Republican voters should know the details of Romney’s wealth before they select their presidential nominee and not after, as Romney had wanted.

But a new line of criticism rising from the records was expected to be leveled at the former front-runner, who keeps some of his personal fortune in investments in the Cayman Islands, where many international investors shelter their income from American taxes.

GINGRICH’S FINANCIAL DEALINGS QUESTIONED

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In Monday’s debate, Gingrich faced harsh questions about his own financial dealings. While comfortable as the aggressor in previous encounters with Romney and their rivals, he found himself battered by Romney’s criticism as the pair clashed repeatedly in sometimes personal terms.

“You’ve been walking around the state saying things that are untrue,” Gingrich told Romney.

After Gingrich’s overwhelming victory in South Carolina last Saturday, Romney can ill afford to lose Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, and he showcased a new aggression from the opening moments in the debate. He said Gingrich had “resigned in disgrace” from Congress after four years as speaker and then had spent the next 15 years “working as an influence peddler.”

In particular, he referred to the contract Gingrich’s consulting firm had with Freddie Mac, a government-backed mortgage giant that Romney said “did a lot of bad for a lot of people and you were working there.”

Romney also said Gingrich had lobbied lawmakers to approve legislation creating a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

“I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying,” Gingrich retorted emphatically, adding that his firm had hired an expert to explain to employees “the bright line between what you can do as a citizen and what you do as a lobbyist.” Romney counterpunched, referring to the $300,000 that Gingrich’s consulting firm received in 2006 from Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant.

And when Gingrich sought to turn the tables by inquiring about the private equity firm that Romney founded, the former Massachusetts governor replied: “We didn’t do any work with the government. … I wasn’t a lobbyist.”

A “PRE-BUTTAL” TO THE STATE OF THE UNION

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich
Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Romney will briefly turn his attention Tuesday morning to President Barack Obama, offering a “pre-buttal” to the president’s State of the Union address before shifting to Gingrich’s work for the federal mortgage giant at a campaign event focused on Florida’s housing problems.

Gingrich has a busy day on the campaign trail planned as well, with rallies set for St. Petersburg, Sarasota and Naples.

Rep. Ron Paul, who’s bypassing Florida in favor of smaller, less expensive states, returned to Texas after Monday’s debate. But Rick Santorum will appeal to the tea party to help revive his candidacy, appearing at two tea party events.

Santorum and Paul were reduced to supporting roles Monday night. Santorum jumped at the chance to criticize both Romney and Gingrich for having supported the big federal bailouts of Wall Street in 2008. He also said both men had abandoned conservative principles by supporting elements of “cap and trade” legislation to curb pollution emissions from industrial sites.

“When push came to shove, they were pushed,” he said. Paul sidestepped when moderator Brian Williams of NBC asked if he would run as a third-party candidate in the fall if he doesn’t win the nomination. “I have no intention,” he said, but he didn’t rule it out.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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