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'Cautiously optimistic' Mitt Romney hints he could lose South Carolina, talks tax returns

Mitt Romney is acknowledging that he's in a dog fight with Newt Gingrich in South Carolina -- and he hinted today that he might not win in a state that he led by double digits in the polls just a few days ago.

So he's looking ahead -- to Florida, where he's out-organizing and outspending opponents -- and the Super Tuesday states a month past the Sunshine State's Jan. 31 primary. Romney knows that, barring major fundraising help and tens of millions in outside help from third-party Super PAC committees, the chances are high that he'll win enough states, and therefore rack up enough delegates to ensure he wins the nomination at the Republican National Convention, held in Tampa this August.

“We have a long process ahead of us -- 1.150 delegates to get," he said. "I sure would like to win South Carolina. But I know that if those polls are right, regardless of who wins, we’re both going to get a lot of delegates,” Romney said.

“This is a campaign that will go the distance. I’m confident we’re going to get the delegates we need,” he said.

The fact that Romney's looking ahead means two things:

1) He's rightly downplaying explanations to tamp down expectations and soften the blow of a David-vs-Goliath story if Gingrich wins.

2) He knows that South Carolina just doesn't love him enough to ensure a win -- despite the constant support of Gov. Nikki Haley.

“Speaker Gingrich is from a neighboring state, well known, popular in this state," Romney said. "To be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting. I wish it were a winner-take-all-state. I wish we had all winner take all states. But we don’t. So It looks like it’s going to be a longer process than perhaps than that would have suggested."

Read between the lines, it's clear that Romney is downplaying the importance of South Carolina's primary because Gingrich won't win all the delegates if he wins

Said Romney: “I’m still hoping and planning to win here. I’m sure the speaker feels the same way do. But we’re going to go on for a long race and I think I’ve got the staying power and a message I believe connects with people.”

When asked about releasing his tax returns -- a question that weighed him down at last night's debate -- Romney said: “I’ll do when it they’re prepared…they’ll all come out at the same time…there will be more than one year.”

That's an evolution. Romney initially refused to release them. Then said he'd probably release a year's worth. Then said he'd release a year's worth and probably release other years. Now he'll release multiple years' worth, probably in April.

Haley bailed him out:

“The people in South Carolina are not talking about tax returns. They’re not.  They’re talking about jobs, spending and the economy. In all honesty, I’ve heard more people wondering why you guys [news media] aren’t asking about ethics reports and ethics problems with the Gingrich campaign,” Haley said.

The ever-smiling Haley going negative? Sounds like it's not the greatest of days in South Carolina for the Romney campaign.

-- blog compiled from McClatchy's Steve Thomma report