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Romney’s Low Tax Rate: Double-Edged Sword?

Mitt Romney is releasing his 2010 tax return Tuesday morning, but he gave several media outlets a sneak peek at the document and his 2011 tax return estimates late Monday. Based on the information released so far, it’s a wonder why he didn’t do this weeks ago. There aren’t many surprises here, unless it comes as a shock to some that Romney’s obscenely rich. He paid a 13.9 percent tax rate in 2010, mainly on capital gains, and expects to pay 15.9 percent in 2011. But the angle he’ll likely play up is his large charitable donations, which actually surpass the amount he paid in taxes:

The couple gave away $7 million in charitable contributions over the past two years, including at least $4.1 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Romney’s family has for generations been among the Mormon Church’s most prominent members.

The Romneys sent somewhat less to Washington over that period, paying an estimated $6.2 million in federal income taxes. According to his 2010 return, Romney paid about $3 million to the IRS, for an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent.

Newt Gingrich declined to directly criticize Romney’s taxes at Monday’s debate, and instead coyly noted that under his own tax plan Americans would pay a 15 percent rate, which he dubbed the “Mitt Romney flat tax.” But Gingrich will have to be careful with how far he pushes this line of attack; if he goes after Romney’s tax rate too blatantly, he risks a conservative backlash like the one over the Bain Capital assault.

Democrats have already started blasting Romney for his low tax rate, which could be a double-edged sword for the former Massachusetts governor. While it’ll likely prompt conservatives to rally around him in defense, it could potentially raise electability questions in the minds of GOP voters. President Obama has already started setting the stage for an election-year class warfare battle, and he couldn’t have dreamed up a better foil than Romney.

Just like Bain Capital, this isn’t a fight conservatives should shrink away from. It’s true that Romney’s tax rate would make him particularly susceptible to Democratic attacks in the general election. But at the same time, defending low taxes is a core value issue for Republicans. If conservatives cut and run when it comes to this issue, then they can’t pretend to stand for anything.