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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin this hour with the debate over Mitt Romney's tax returns. His decision not to release multiple returns has fueled countless attacks and counter-attacks. The GOP candidate did release his 2010 return and promises to do the same with 2011; that, he says, is enough. But that's not enough for Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

NPR Don Gonyea reports on the increasingly ugly fight.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Senator Reid's allegation regarding Romney's taxes is one he's been making for a while, including almost a month ago on the Senate floor when he spoke of Romney's father, George, who released 12 years of tax returns when he sought the 1968 GOP nomination.

SENATOR HARRY REID: But Mitt Romney can't do that because he's basically paid no taxes in the prior 12 years.

GONYEA: But that accusation was overshadowed by Reid's other claim that day, that Romney couldn't be confirmed as dog catcher given his secrecy over taxes. Both statements were seen as classic Harry Reid.

David Damore is a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in Reid's home state.

DAVID DAMORE: You know, Reid has what we call in Nevada Reidisms, sort of saying things that oftentimes he has to walk back.

GONYEA: Damore remembers the time Reid called President George W. Bush a loser, or when he labeled former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan a political hack. But he says the attack on Romney seems different.

DAMORE: Usually these are sort of one line comments here. This seems to be more of a full-court press on Romney. He seems to see a vulnerability here and keeps pushing it.

GONYEA: Reid pushed the button again when he spoke to The Huffington Post. That's when he added the detail that his source is a Bain Capital investor. Bain, of course, is Romney's former company. He then responded to the ensuing GOP cries of foul by again going on the Senate floor last Thursday.

REID: The word's out that he hasn't paid any taxes for 10 years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn't.

GONYEA: That same afternoon, Romney was on the radio show hosted by conservative Fox News personality Sean Hannity.

SEAN HANNITY: Do you have any response to Harry Reid? Have you even paid attention to what he's been saying about you the last couple of days.

(LAUGHTER)

HANNITY: And that you haven't paid taxes in past 10 years and he hasn't. And he said, I know because I talked to this unnamed source.

(LAUGHTER)

MITT ROMNEY: Well it's time for Harry to put up or shut up. Harry is going to have to describe who it is he spoke with, because of course that's totally and completely wrong.

GONYEA: Three days later, on this past weekend's Sunday morning network TV talk shows, the topic was still hot. This time it was Romney's surrogates going on the attack against Reid including, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos.

REINCE PRIEBUS: And listen, I know you might want to go down that road. I'm not going to respond to a dirty liar who hasn't filed a single...

GONYEA: Though, of course, he did go down that road and by calling Reid a dirty liar, Priebus gave the storyline yet another boost. Romney himself has accused the White House and the Obama campaign of somehow being behind Reid's comments. The president's press secretary, Jay Carney, has been peppered with questions about it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Charges that Romney didn't pay taxes for 10 years, does the White House believe that allegation?

JAY CARNEY: Yeah. I would refer you to Senator Reid for - I can't - only Senator Reid knows his source, which he has discussed and I would refer you to that.

GONYEA: But Carney was quick to point out that Romney's taxes first became an issue back during the primaries, when his Republican rivals demanded that he release more of his returns.

David Damore, the UNLV professor, says there's little incentive for Reid to back down. He's not up for re-election until 2016.

DAMORE: So I don't think he sees any downside to this. Again, he's driving the narrative for these last couple of weeks.

GONYEA: It also means Romney is doing battle on this with someone who's not even on the ballot, who most Americans don't really know. And in Senator Reid, a former amateur boxer who clearly enjoys a good fight.

Don Gonyea NPR News Washington.

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