Harry Reid's Attack Boxes Mitt Romney In

Harry Reid's tax accusation appears to put Mitt Romney in a tough spot.

August 6, 2012, 3:40 PM

Aug. 7, 2012 -- Harry Reid's campaign to corner Mitt Romney, forcing the Republican presidential candidate to disclose his tax returns or keep on trying to explain why he won't, will carry on another day.

The Senate majority leader told reporters in his home state of Nevada Monday that the "whole controversy" -- the one Reid himself incited by claiming that a former Bain Capital business associate told him that Romney didn't pay taxes for a decade -- "would end very quickly if [Romney] would just release his income tax returns just like everybody else that runs for president."

Not that Reid appears to be in any rush to see that happen.

He is the latest in a long line of political leaders to channel the ruthless wisdom of another former Senate majority leader, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, as the late Hunter S. Thompson told it, sealed a comeback win in his 1948 Senate primary campaign by calling a news conference to allege that his opponent, a prominent and well-regarded pig rancher, "was having routine carnal knowledge of his barnyard animals."

When Johnson's press secretary balked, saying it wasn't true, Johnson spat back: "Of course it's not, but let's make the bastard deny it."

Top Republicans say Reid is pulling a similar stunt. On Sunday, Republican National Committee chief Reince Preibus called Reid, who refuses to reveal his source, a "dirty liar."

Asked about that comment Monday, Priebus didn't budge.

"There's no triple down in blackjack, but I'll triple down on my comments from [Sunday]," Priebus said during a Fox News interview. "It's just the truth. What else do you call somebody who goes onto the Senate floor and claims that someone hasn't paid taxes in 10 years, a complete lie, and uses his official office to do it?"

We'll probably never know whether Reid is employing such blunt cynicism on the president's behalf. What is undeniable, though, is that Romney is being forced to "deny it." Reid says Romney can prove him wrong anytime; the candidate only needs to reveal more tax returns. Romney meanwhile, has told Reid to "put up or shut up." And so it goes, back and forth, on and on, one spicy storyline in an otherwise cautious campaign.

The last presidential candidate to be faced with such a bold, personal attack -- John Kerry, whose military record was questioned and degraded by the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" group -- chose at first to publicly discount the accusations. By the time Kerry's campaign responded, the narrative had spun out of their hands and the candidate was forced into the unenviable position of defending his own personal history while trying to unseat an incumbent president.

Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell decided two years ago to take a head-on approach to dealing with what she perceived to be a damaging story from her past.

A Tea Party favorite, O'Donnell had defeated the Republican establishment choice, Rep. Mike Castle, in a tough primary race. But questions about her relative qualifications to hold office were amplified when a clip of O'Donnell telling Bill Maher, on ABC's "Politically Incorrect" in 1999, that she once "dabbled into witchcraft" surfaced and went viral.

O'Donnell was concerned that interest in those comments would distract from her conservative bona fides, so she set out to dispell any doubts t in her now infamous "I'm not a witch" video.

"Any regrets in doing the ad?" ABC's Jonathan Karl asked her later. "Because that really did raise it again."

"Yeah," O'Donnell said. "Our intention was to kill it and that's not what happened."

Democrat Chris Coons would go on to defeat O'Donnell by more than 16 points in their race to claim the Senate seat Vice President Joe Biden left behind in 2008.

The same year Biden left the Senate, North Carolina's Kay Hagan was voted in, defeating Republican Elizabeth Dole. An early underdog, Hagan caught her stride and had surpassed Dole in most polls by the end of August. Then, with just more than a week to go before the election, Dole released an ad that suggested, per Politico, that Hagan was "a godless heathen."

The 30-second spot tells of a "secret fundraiser" the Godless Americans PAC held for Hagan, who happens to be a former Sunday school teacher. (Hagan had been at an event, weeks before, which was co-hosted by a member of the PAC's advisory board, but it was no "secret.")

"What did Kay Hagan promise in return?" the narrator asks before a woman's faceless voice says: "There is no God."

The Hagan campaign bit back angrily, denying the bizarre charge and threatening to sue Dole for defamation and libel. By Election Day, the damage was done. Dole's national standing had been damaged and her numbers in North Carolina flat-lined. Hagan won the seat comfortably.

The Obama 2012 campaign has been careful not to get tied in too tight to Reid's attack on Romney. But the campaign appears to have been emboldened by the controversy, relentlessly demanding Romney release more personal financial information.

"Until Romney follows precedent and releases multiple years of tax returns," they said Monday, "the American people can't make their own judgments on his motivations on these critical policy matters."

It's a pursuit that might've fallen flat a week ago, but with Reid's conjecture as a catalyst, the questions become harder to ignore.

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