Rivals attack Romney in South Carolina debate

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) - Under heavy debate pressure from his
rivals, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney defended
his record as a venture capitalist, insisted he bears no
responsibility for attack ads aired by his allies and grudgingly
said in campaign debate Monday night he might release his income
tax returns this spring.
"I have nothing in them that suggests there's any problem and
I'm happy to do so," he said. "I sort of feel like we're showing
a lot of exposure at this point," he added.
Romney came under criticism from Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and
Rick Santorum across two hours in the first of a pair of debates in
the run-up to this weekend's first-in-the-South primary in South
Carolina. The former Massachusetts governor won the first two
events of the campaign, the Iowa caucuses and last week's New
Hampshire primary, leads in the pre-primary polls in South Carolina
and won an endorsement from campaign dropout Jon Huntsman earlier
in the day.
Gingrich has virtually conceded that a victory for Romney in
South Carolina would assure his nomination as Democratic President
Barack Obama's Republican rival in the fall, and none of the other
remaining contenders has challenged that conclusion.
That only elevated the stakes for Monday night's debate, feisty
from the outset as former House Speaker Gingrich, Texas Gov. Perry
and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum sought to knock Romney
off stride while generally being careful to wrap their criticism in
anti-Obama rhetoric.
"We need to satisfy the country that whoever we nominate has a
record that can stand up to Barack Obama in a very effective way,"
said Gingrich.
The five men on stage also sought to outdo one another in
calling for lower taxes.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul won that competition handily, saying he
thought the top personal tax rate should be zero.
In South Carolina, a state with a heavy military presence, the
tone turned muscular at times.
Gingrich drew strong applause when he said: "Andrew Jackson had
a pretty clear idea about America's enemies. Kill them."
Perry also won favor from the crowd when he said the Obama
administration had overreacted in criticizing Marines who were
videotaped urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in
Afghanistan.
The former House speaker and Perry led the assault against
Romney's record at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought
companies and sought to remake them into more competitive
enterprises, with uneven results.
"There was a pattern in some companies ... of leaving them with
enormous debt and then within a year or two or three having them go
broke," Gingrich said. "I think that's something he ought to
answer."
Perry referred to a steel mill in Georgetown, S.C. where, he
said, "Bain swept in, they picked that company over and a lot of
people lost jobs there."
Romney said that the steel industry was battered by unfair
competition from China. As for other firms, he said, "Four of the
companies that we invested in ... ended up today having some
120,000 jobs.
"Some of the businesses we invested in were not successful and
lost jobs," he acknowledged.
It was Perry who challenged Romney, a multimillionaire, to
release his income tax returns. The Texas governor said he has
already done so, adding he believes Gingrich will do likewise later
in the week.
"Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people
of this country can see how you made your money. ... We cannot fire
our nominee in September. We need to know now."
Later, a debate moderator pressed Romney on releasing his tax
returns.
His answer was anything but crisp.
"But you know if that's been the tradition I'm not opposed to
doing that. Time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I'm
going to get asked to do that in the April time period and I'll
keep that open," he said.
Prodded again, he said, "I think I've heard enough from folks
saying look, you know, let's see your tax records. I have nothing
in them that suggests there's any problem and I'm happy to do so. I
sort of feel like we're showing a lot of exposure at this point,
and if I become our nominee and what's happened in history is
people have released them in about April of the coming year and
that's probably what I'd do."
Santorum stayed away from the clash over taxes, instead starting
a dispute of his own. He said a campaign group supporting Romney
has been attacking him for supporting voter rights for convicted
felons, and asked Romney what his position was on the issue.
Romney initially ducked a direct answer, preferring to ask
Santorum if the ad was accurate.
He then said he doesn't believe convicted violent felons should
have the right to vote, even after serving their terms. Santorum
instantly said that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney hadn't
made any attempt to change a law that permitted convicted felons to
vote while still on parole, a law that the former Pennsylvania
senator said was more liberal than the one he has been assailed for
supporting.
Romney replied that as Republican governor, he was confronted
with a legislature that was heavily Democratic and held a different
position.
He also reminded Santorum that candidates have no control over
the campaign groups that have played a pivotal role in the race to
date.
"It is inaccurate," Santorum said of the ad assailing him,
seeking the last word. "I would go out and say, `Stop it. That
you're representing me and you're representing my campaign. Stop
it."'
That issue returned more than an hour later, when Gingrich said
he, too, faces false attacks from the same group that is
criticizing Santorum. He noted that Romney says he lacks sway over
the group, "which makes you wonder how much influence he would
have if he were president."
Romney said he hoped no group would run inaccurate ads, and he
said the organization backing Gingrich was airing a commercial that
is so false that "it's probably the biggest hoax since bigfoot."
He called for scuttling the current system of campaign finance
laws to permit individuals to donate as much money as they want to
the candidates of their choice.
Noting that the debate was occurring on Martin Luther King Jr.
Day, one moderator asked Gingrich if his previous statements about
poor children lacking a work ethic were "insulting to all
Americans, but particularly to black Americans?
"No," he said emphatically, adding his aim was to break
dependence on government programs.
"I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn
how to get a job, learn to get a better job and learn someday to
own the job," he said.
Romney is the leader in the public opinion polls in South
Carolina, although his rivals hope the state's 9.9 percent
unemployment rate and the presence of large numbers of socially
conservative evangelical voters will allow one of them to slip by
him.
Huntsman was the second campaign dropout to endorse Romney,
after former Minnesota Gov. Tom Pawlenty. Minnesota Rep. Michele
Bachmann, who quit after a last-place finish in Iowa, has not yet
said which of the remaining contenders she supports. Herman Cain,
who left the race in December after facing allegations of sexual
impropriety, has promised an endorsement soon.
Huntsman's parting announcement included a reference to the
differences he and Romney had. But he left the podium without
responding to questions about his remark last week, in the run-up
to the New Hampshire primary, that Romney was unelectable and out
of touch.
It was unclear why Romney did not attend the announcement. He
was in town for a later campaign appearance and then the debate.
---
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Columbia and Beth
Fouhy in Myrtle Beach contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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