SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A venerable tradition in politics - the Friday night document dump. Last night, the Romney campaign released two years of tax documents for vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. This comes at the end of Mr. Ryan's first week on the ticket. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been on the road with the Romney campaign and joins us now. Ari, thanks so much for being with us.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: And what do Paul Ryan's tax returns show?
SHAPIRO: Well, last year, he and his wife Janet paid a rate of 20 percent - 15.9 percent the year before that. And that's compared to north of 20 percent for the Obamas, just south of 14 percent for the Romneys. Paul and Janet Ryan's combined income last year was $323,000 and some change. About half of that was from Paul Ryan's salary in Congress. Their investments are worth somewhere between around $2 and $8 million and lot of that comes from Mrs. Ryan, who was wealthy before the couple wed.
SIMON: Now, Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate, had, of course, hoped to be talking mostly about unemployment at this point but he still had to fend off a lot of questions about his own tax returns. What's the latest?
SHAPIRO: Right. Well, remember, that like Paul Ryan, Romney has promised to release no more than two years of tax documents, and this week there was new pressure once we learned that the vetting process for his vice presidential pick required releasing several years of tax returns to the Romney campaign. So, in a news conference in South Carolina this week Romney was asked about this. And he tried to put an end to speculation and rumors that he had paid little or no taxes in the last 10 years. Here's part of what he said.
MITT ROMNEY: I did go back and look at my taxes and over the past 10 years, I never paid less than 13 percent. I think the most recent years, 13.6 or something like that.
SHAPIRO: And, Scott, this is all tied into Democrats' efforts to keep the issue of taxes on the front burner. Remember, Romney is one of the wealthiest men ever to run for president, and the Obama campaign believes that by emphasizing the relatively low tax rate that he has paid, as well as the fact that he's releasing fewer years of tax returns that many presidential candidates have, the Obama campaign believes they will be able to portray Romney as an out-of-touch elitist with something to hide.
SIMON: Maybe we should explain again that 13.6 percent tax rate that Mr. Romney says he pays would be consistent with paying taxes on capital gains. He hasn't been a salaried employee, unlike Mr. Ryan or President Obama, for the past few years.
SHAPIRO: That's right. Because most of his income comes through investments, he pays a lower rate than many.
SIMON: Paul Ryan has been out on the stump all week. How are people responding?
SHAPIRO: Well, in person, people are really enthusiastic. We're seeing huge crowds, energetic audiences, cheers of the kind that we didn't always see for Romney on his own. But the reaction from the American people as a whole seems to be perhaps less enthusiastic. We got the first poll numbers on Monday, after last Saturday's announcement. They show that Ryan had the worst initial approval ratings of any vice presidential pick since Dan Quayle. That's worse than Sarah Palin or Dick Cheney. And then this week the Gallop poll showed that Romney did not seem to get much of a bounce at all in polls from choosing Paul Ryan. You know, there's still another chance coming up for Romney to get a pump from the Republican convention at the end of this month and then there are going to be those big debates. But the window is shrinking for Romney to really dramatically shift the dynamic of this race.
SIMON: Has Mr. Romney been changing his style on the stump, Ari?
SHAPIRO: Yes, and especially in the way he talks about President Obama. Let me play you two cuts here. This first one is from the primaries. It was a line that Romney used a lot on the stump. This is from back in April.
ROMNEY: I think he's a nice person; I just don't think we can afford him any longer.
SHAPIRO: And then this next cut is from just last Tuesday in Chillicothe, Ohio. Big difference here.
ROMNEY: He demonizes some, he panders to others. His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then try to cobble together 51 percent of the pieces. If an American president wins that way, we would all lose. But he won't win that way.
SHAPIRO: Now, Scott, the Romney campaign truly believes that President Obama is responsible for dragging this race into the mud. The risk with this strategy is that Americans have been watching President Obama for years, have fixed opinions about him - and they are generally positive opinions. Generally speaking, it's harder for a challenger like Romney to redefine an incumbent president than it is for an incumbent to define a relative stranger like Romney, but that's exactly the strategy that the Romney campaign is banking on right now.
SIMON: NPR's Ari Shapiro on the campaign trail. Thanks so much.
SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.