Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney continues to be steadfast in his refusal to release any more than his last two years of tax returns, a position that has already become a distraction to his presidential campaign and could cause considerably more trouble if he doesn’t figure out a better answer — and soon.

Demonstrators stand outside a fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Monday, July 16, 2012 in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Perception is becoming Romney’s reality and these issues have now risen above mere distractions,” said John Weaver, a Republican consultant and former senior adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R) 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns. “The President has had the worst three months of any incumbent, due to the economy, since George H.W. Bush in 1992, and yet Romney has lost traction among key demographic groups in the vital swing states. He has got to get this behind him or he’s going to face summer definition ala [Bob] Dole and [John] Kerry. ”

Democrats are doing everything in their power to define Romney negatively before the two parties gather for their national conventions later this summer.

The Obama campaign is up with a new — and brutal — ad today in which a narrator details Romney’s complex financial history and then says that it all “makes you wonder if some years he paid any taxes at all”, adding: “What is Mitt Romney hiding?”

A Democratic National Committee web video echoes that secrecy message, featuring a series of Republicans urging Romney to release his tax returns before noting that the one person who did have access to a Romney’s financial past — McCain during the 2008 VP vetting process — decided to go in another direction. (That last claim is a bit of a stretch; Romney was never seriously regarded as a potential veep pick for McCain — not because of his financial past but rather because the two men simply didn’t get along.)

For the moment, the Romney team — and his orbit of advisers — seem to have decided to pursue the same course of action they did when the release of his tax returns bubbled up as an issue in the primary.

“My tax returns that have already been released number into the hundreds of pages,” Romney told National Review’s Robert Costa today. “And we will be releasing tax returns for the most current year as soon as those are prepared. They will also number in the hundreds of pages.”

Back then he insisted that the reason his Republican opponents wanted the information was in order to use it as a political ammunition against him and that he was not interested in giving them a bat with which to beat him.

He reiterated that point in the National Review interview. “In the political environment that exists today, the opposition research of the Obama campaign is looking for anything they can use to distract from the failure of the president to reignite our economy,” said Romney. “And I’m simply not enthusiastic about giving them hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort, and lie about.”

Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committeeman from Mississippi and a Romney supporter, added that giving in on the tax returns would amount to Republicans allowing Democrats to define the terms of the debate.

“Romney will never satisfy the Obama campaign,” said Barbour. “No matter what he does, it won’t be enough and their demands won’t stop until after November 6.” Added Barbour: “Why doesn’t Obama release all the ‘Fast and Furious’ documents?”

(Worth noting: Barbour’s uncle, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, said that if he was in Romney’s place he would release more years of tax returns.)

They’re right. Tax returns — particularly for someone as wealthy as Romney — are an opposition researcher’s dream come true. For someone with as diversified (and large) a financial portfolio as Romney, there are always nuggets to be mined that could make him look bad. The Obama campaign knows this. It’s why they are trying to force Romney’s hand.

Those risks and arguments notwithstanding, however, Romney would be making a mistake if he continued to refuse to release any more tax returns.

The main reason why? President Obama is not Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

That is, when Romney was beating back attacks on his tax returns during the primary he was doing so from flawed candidates running, largely, seat-of-the-pants campaigns. Neither Gingrich or Santorum had the message discipline or the money to prosecute the tax return case against Romney in an effective way.

That’s simply not true when it comes to Obama and his team. This is — regardless of what you may think of the campaign they are running — a deeply experienced and deeply funded effort that won’t back down from a daily hammering of Romney on the issue.

And what that daily hammering will do (and is doing) is reinforce a troubling caricature of Romney — that he is extremely wealthy and is not only doing everything he can to take advantages of loopholes (Swiss bank account etc.) to protect his wealth but also using his affluence to hide unsavory things.

Obama wins this election by turning it from a referendum on the economy into a choice between himself and Romney. By not releasing more of his tax returns — and, therefore, allowing the issue to remain in the political conversation — Romney is allowing the race to be focused far too much on him (and his money).

No matter what’s in the tax returns — and our guess is that Romney likely paid very little taxes for several years due to the fact he was not drawing a salary — it can’t be worse than slowly dying a political death of 1,000 cuts as the media (and the Obama campaign) speculate about just why Romney won’t release his returns.

The truth — in politics and in life — is almost always less damaging than what the imagination can conjure. While the tax return debate is a no-win for Romney, he’d be better to lance this political boil once and for all. It’s not going away and if he doesn’t it’s only likely to grow.

Now that’s an image.