By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Harry Reid and the White House may be taking different roads, but when it comes to Mitt Romney and his taxes, the destination is the same.
That became clearer than ever Monday in the daily White House briefing by spokesman Jay Carney. While keeping a distance from Senate Majority Leader Reid and his claim that Romney failed to pay taxes for 10 years, Carney was happy to take advantage of all the attention, and questions, provoked by the allegation to drive home the administration's broader message.
The bare-knuckle fight over Mitt Romney's tax returns has become part of one effort led by the two highest-ranking Democrats in the country aimed at convincing voters that the Republican presidential candidate cannot be trusted to protect middle-class taxpayers if he won the White House.
"I'm not aware of the White House speaking to Senator Reid about this issue," Carney said Monday. "I would simply say that you all probably know Senator Reid well, and he speaks for himself, and he has addressed this issue."
But, he added, "The reason why this is an issue at a policy level is the president believes very strongly ... that we need to have greater tax fairness and that we need to make sure that we're passing laws that protect the middle class, that specifically give the middle class a tax cut extension, and that we're not passing laws that give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires who have already enjoyed substantial tax breaks in the past."
Reid continues to cite as his source only a single unnamed investor with Bain Capital, the firm that Romney headed for many years.
Romney denies Reid's charge and has called on him to "put up or shut up." Surrogates rushed to his defense over the weekend, with Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus on Sunday calling Reid "a dirty liar" and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying the top Senate Democrat was "making things up."
It might be impossible to know which side is right unless Romney releases a decade's worth of tax returns -- something he so far has refused to do.
In the meantime, Democrats are laying down a narrative and keeping it in the news that likely will extend through the November 6 presidential and congressional elections. Its theme is that Republicans want nothing more than to raise taxes on the middle class to help finance tax cuts for the rich with none other than the Republican standard-bearer being the poster child for who would benefit in a Romney administration.
The strategy is a familiar one in modern campaigns, with extreme accusations from outside a campaign serving as a way for the campaign itself to highlight its message without embracing the inflammatory rhetoric.
In the 2004 presidential campaign, it was the "swift boat" attack ads that became a central theme in the drive to defeat President George W. Bush's Democratic challenger, John Kerry.
Four years later, when Barack Obama first campaigned for president, some opposition groups challenged his eligibility to run, claiming he was not a "natural born citizen" as required by the U.S. Constitution.
Sometimes the attacks work (2004) and sometimes they do not (2008) and Republicans are banking on Reid's broadside failing.
"They (Democrats) keep trying to get something to catch fire, but it's not catching fire," said one Republican strategist, arguing public opinion polls show that voters put a low priority on raising taxes on the rich and are much more focused on the need for job creation in a weak economy.
But Democrats sense a winning hand as surveys they look at point at voter support for having the rich pay more taxes to help share the burden of deficit reduction.
A senior Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified, said Democrats are rallying around their leaders' demands that Romney, a multi-millionaire, open his tax records.
But there will also be a "pivot," the aide said, to simultaneously focus on the impact of Romney's tax-cut plans.
"He (Romney) has used every loophole to pay less than the average middle-class family," the aide said, adding, "The larger question is, the tax structure he wants to see as president ... members (of Congress) are going to go after that as the subject of the larger story."
Democrats got a boost last week, when the respected Tax Policy Center released a new analysis of Romney's tax-cut proposals.
"Our major conclusion is that a revenue-neutral individual income tax change that incorporates the features Governor Romney has proposed ... would provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers," the report said.
For now, in the midst of a political dead zone, the summer doldrums before the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions and as U.S. voters are more fixated on the Olympic Games than politics, the sniping over Romney's tax forms continues.
Reid's chief of staff, David Krone, in an interview with Politico, accused Republicans of being "a bunch of cowards" in the face of demands for Romney's tax forms.
Congressional staffers generally shy away from publicly criticizing anyone, much less members of Congress. Not so for Krone. "Lindsey Graham, Reince Priebus — they're a bunch of henchmen for Romney," he told Politico.
Reid has a history of being provocative.
In 2007, as Iraq fell into civil war, Reid said the U.S.-led war was "lost." Two years earlier, he was quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper saying then President Bush was "a loser," a quip that he quickly apologized for.
This time around, Reid is showing no signs of backing down from his claim that Romney is using the tax code to legally avoid paying taxes.
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson, asked whether the senator approved of Krone's comments, responded, "Yes."
Arguing that the tax code is the "single biggest policy debate we're having in the country right now," Jentleson added: "It's clear Romney's hiding something. He's being asked to be elected president without presenting ... to the American people a huge part of his life - his financial issues."
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)
(This story was refiled to clarify wording on presidential eligibility in the twelfth paragraph)