Rivals Assail Romney in S.C. Republican Debate
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - 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 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 in an apparent reference to the campaign to come against Democratic President Barack Obama.
Romney came under criticism from the opening moments of the debate, the first of two 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, and leads in the pre-primary polls in South Carolina.
One of his rivals, Newt Gingrich, has virtually conceded that a victory for Romney in South Carolina would assure his nomination as Obama’s Republican rival in the fall, and none of the other remaining contenders has challenged that conclusion.
That only elevated the stakes for the debate, feisty from the outset as Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum sought to knock Romney off stride.
The debate began hours after Romney reaped an endorsement from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who suspended his own candidacy and urged the remaining contenders to stop attacking one another for fear it might benefit Obama in November.
Romney’s rivals, while going after him vigorously, were 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 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.
The 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."