Has Romney Settled Debate Over Personal Taxes?

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Thursday that he's paid a rate of at least 13 percent in taxes over the past 10 years. But the Obama campaign again called on Romney to release more tax returns. Guest host Jacki Lyden discusses this and other political news with Univision's Fernando Vila and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Craig Gilbert.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll take a closer look at the voter-approved Prayer Protection Amendment in Missouri's constitution. That's in Faith Matters in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for our political chat and the latest news from the presidential race. Congressman Paul Ryan is wrapping up his first week as Mitt Romney's running mate on the Republican ticket. We'll talk about how that choice is playing with voters in some key states. And we'll look at some of the issues he and other candidates are facing on taxes, immigration, and Medicare.

And here to help us sort it all out, we have two trusted politicos - Fernando Vila, managing editor of Univision News in English. Welcome.

FERNANDO VILA: Thank you. How are you?

LYDEN: I'm very good. Thanks for being with us. And Craig Gilbert. He's is the Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and he is in our Washington studio here. Welcome.

CRAIG GILBERT: Nice to be with you.

LYDEN: Nice to have you. So I'd like to start with some comments that Mitt Romney made in South Carolina yesterday. Now, he's resisted calls from Democrats and some Republicans to release his tax returns, but here's what he had to say yesterday.

MITT ROMNEY: The fascination with taxes I paid I find to be very small-minded compared to the broad issues that we face. But I did go back and look at my taxes and over the past 10 years I never paid less than 13 percent.

LYDEN: Craig Gilbert, I'll start with you and this brings up a couple of questions. First, will 13 percent, that number, satisfy people who want to see Mitt Romney's tax returns? And secondly, is it a small-minded thing to ask?

GILBERT: Well, 13 percent is probably not nearly enough for some people, and this kind of gets to issues, broader issues, including issues that the Paul Ryan pick raises. I mean, his original tax plan, which is in the Paul Ryan roadmap, doesn't tax investments, investment income.

So the effective tax rate that Mitt Romney would be paying under his roadmap - not his budget but his roadmap - would be close to zero. So those kinds of things, I think, are going to keep this issue alive for some voters and obviously for the campaigns.

LYDEN: This morning President Obama's campaign said it would back off if Romney would release five years of tax returns, but the Romney campaign didn't take that offer either. Fernando Vila, what's your take?

VILA: You know, I think it's interesting. I'm surprised Mitt Romney brought it up. I think this issue is a difficult one for him to sell. The vast majority of people pay more than 13 percent, and the vast majority of people aren't nearly as wealthy as Mitt Romney. So it's kind of a hard sell on his part. I don't quite understand why he would bring it up at this point.

LYDEN: Is it small-minded to ask about taxes, do you think?

VILA: I don't - I mean the tax issue is one of the broad issues facing the economy and the electorate at this point, so I don't think it's small-minded.

LYDEN: Craig Gilbert, you just got back, I think, from a trip to Wisconsin, Congressman Ryan's home state, of course, Janesville his base. But it was also a state where President Obama won by 14 points in 2008. Tell us how popular Paul Ryan is in Wisconsin and whether it gives Mitt Romney a shot at carrying a state that hasn't had a Republican carry the ticket since I think 1984.

GILBERT: Exactly. He's certainly popular in his district, partly because he hasn't had much competition to run against in the past, but he runs well ahead the top of the ticket in his district, which is pretty politically diverse. It's a little bit Republican leaning.

You know, for some people in the state, they're still getting to know him just like people around the country are getting to know him. He does have - his profile has absolutely grown because of the Ryan budgets, and I think his image has become nationalized.

There was a poll that CNN just did which showed generally a fairly positive reaction in Wisconsin to his pick, but how much, you know, whether it's worth a point or two or three to Mitt Romney on the ticket - or less - we don't really know.

I mean, President Obama has been ahead in almost all the polling in Wisconsin, but I think if anything - if nothing else, this pick I think ensures that the Romney campaign will make a very serious effort in Wisconsin, which they haven't really been doing until now. They haven't been up on the air in the state.

LYDEN: But given that the RNC chairman, Reince Priebus, is also from Wisconsin, certainly Republicans would like to carry that state.

GILBERT: Absolutely. I mean he's definitely personally invested. The RNC as an independent expenditure has started running ads in Wisconsin. So Wisconsin Republicans, it's funny. I mean, they've really been playing on a national stage. They're very - a very charged up group, both at the top and at the bottom of the party. And so that's part of the story going forward.

LYDEN: Fernando Vila, you live and work in Miami. Florida is also a big swing state with a lot of elderly and Hispanic voters and a lot of people looking to see how those groups are going to react to the Ryan pick. What do you think?

VILA: Well, it's interesting. I mean, people are really looking at Florida with this Ryan pick because of his transformation of the Medicare program in his budget. How that will play with senior voters in Florida which are very politically active remains to be seen, whether they'll be able to sell that they aren't affected by the Medicare changes or not.

And in terms of Hispanic voters in Florida, it was interesting because Paul Ryan actually voted against the Cuban embargo twice. He's come around on it, eventually, but that definitely made some of the staunch sort of embargo Cuban-Americans in Miami very, very iffy.

But Mitt Romney went down to Miami to campaign just on that issue, to dissuade voters from worrying about that.

LYDEN: Craig wants to jump in on this one.

GILBERT: Yeah. Well, I actually dug out an interview I did with Paul Ryan 10 years ago on this very issue, because I was doing some reporting on Cuba, and he not only voted against the embargo but he talked very emphatically about why he thought it was a bad idea, why he thought it didn't work, why we should be sort of - all the classic arguments against the embargo.

People should be exposed to democracy. You know, if we're engaged with China, why with - and then clearly his position changed some years ago. But, you know, it's another one of those little wrinkles in somebody's record that could come back to bite them.

LYDEN: I just have to ask, Fernando Vila, was there any disappointment that Marco Rubio wasn't on the ticket?

VILA: Well, you know, the sort of buzz around Rubio had faded a little bit in recent weeks around his VP pick. It seemed pretty clear that he wasn't going to be it, so I think people had come around on that. But Marco Rubio definitely would've jazzed up the Florida campaign significantly.

You know, he's a very, very talented politician that could really communicate well, and he definitely would've made the Florida campaign extremely interesting.

LYDEN: You mentioned an interview 10 years ago with Paul Ryan, Craig Gilbert. Is there anything that we're going to be looking at - it's been suggested, for example, Paul Ryan has been pretty good to Janesville. Anything in his past record that you think might come up nationally?

GILBERT: Well, people will look at how he's, you know, the district dynamics and other votes he's taken for the district that don't jive with his conservative philosophy and there have been some. You know, the focus has been so overwhelmingly for him and about him on fiscal and economic issues that, you know, we're going to have to - people will want to know on foreign policy and also on social issues.

Social issues - he's a very conservative guy on social issues, with a few exceptions. For example, he voted for employment protection based on sexual orientation, which is a vote that some conservatives will object to. So those kinds of things will be really interesting to look at as we fill out the picture of Paul Ryan going forward.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're taking a look at some of the big political stories this week. Our guests are Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Fernando Vila, managing editor of Univision News in English.

Let's turn now to another issue - crossed the wires today - and it's the whole matter of who can vote and how. Voter I.D. laws in Florida, a federal court in the District of Columbia just ruled that a law cutting down early voting days could not be enacted in certain counties.

Fernando, I know you've hardly had a chance to look at this, but based on the reporting you've done before, because this obviously has been in contention a while, what's your take on the decision?

VILA: Well, it seems clear that Rick Scott is very focused on voter I.D. laws.

LYDEN: The governor of Florida.

VILA: Yes, the governor of Florida. Thank you. You know, he did a voter - a non-citizen voter purge that has been challenged in federal court. He's done several efforts to sort of suppress voter registration and now with this voter - early voting laws. It seems clear that they're very focused and it seems clear that these also affect minority voters disproportionately.

So it's just part of the broader, you know, Rick Scott effort to suppress these votes. And it's just, you know, it's going to be a significant issue in this election.

LYDEN: And I don't want to skip over, Fernando - we also saw, this week, the deferred act that came with many, many undocumented young Latinos lining up. What's your take on that?

VILA: Well, I think it's a very dramatic moment for millions of undocumented people, especially - I mean, it could affect between 800,000 and 1.4 million young dreamers, which are the sort of eligible young undocumented people. It's going to be a significant boon for the Obama campaign, I think. This is sort of one of those issues where you can sort of draw a very direct line between a policy enacted by a president and sort of real effect that it's going to have on people in a very immediate way.

This is going to give people the right to work for the next two years, which is something that they've never had in their entire lives. It's going to really, really sort of be a significant factor in how Latinos vote in November.

LYDEN: Yeah. And let me not - I think I may have conflated a couple of labels here. I meant to refer to the Deferred Action Act.

VILA: Yeah.

LYDEN: I think I got that all out. What about voter ID laws in Wisconsin, Craig? You know, we see quite a few of these laws across the state. First, let's talk about Wisconsin. We have just a little bit of time left. Will that matter in November?

GILBERT: Well, there is a - Wisconsin passed one of the most aggressive or far-reaching voter ID laws under Governor Walker, but it's held up in court, so it doesn't look like it will take effect in November, but it's a big issue in Wisconsin because the state was so close in the 2000 and 2004 elections. The Republicans are convinced that were enough voters who, in their minds, were voting improperly to affect the outcome of that election, so it's a big issue for Republicans in Wisconsin.

LYDEN: Well, definitely, would both of you say that - talking Wisconsin, talking Florida - these are both considered to be swing states. Big turnout?

GILBERT: Absolutely. It will be huge, massive. Wisconsin is usually among the top two or three in turnout. The turnout will be massive and, you know, it matters in a different way than Florida because Wisconsin has been in the Democratic column, so if Republicans can flip it, it has a huge impact on the math.

LYDEN: In 10 seconds, can you explain Obama/Walker?

GILBERT: Independent voters outstate voters. You get out of those really partisan areas like Waukesha County Republican and Democratic Madison and you find swing voters, still.

LYDEN: OK. Great. Craig Gilbert is Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. And Fernando Vila is the managing editor of Univision News in English and he was with us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you both. Great to have you.

GILBERT: Thank you.

VILA: Thank you.

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