MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Mitt Romney's Republican rivals attacked his record as a private businessman and challenged him to release his federal income tax returns Monday night in the first of two debates before a pivotal weekend primary in South Carolina.
"I'm proud of my record," the former Massachusetts governor responded, but he avoided an answer on making his tax returns public.
The debate unfolded hours after former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman withdrew from the race and endorsed Romney.
That withdrawal raised the stakes of the debate — and one on Thursday night — for Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Rick Perry.
Gingrich and Perry led the assault against Romney's record at Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that bought companies and sought to remake them into more competitive enterprises.
"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 said, but he offered no specifics.
Romney: I'll release tax records in April
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says he's "happy" to release his tax records and suggested he would do so in April if he becomes the Republican nominee for president.
Under tough questioning during a presidential debate Monday, Romney said he has looked at the campaigns of past GOP nominees who released their tax information around tax day, which is April 15. Romney earned millions of dollars at a venture capital firm. He said there's nothing in the records to indicate anything amiss.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested Romney should follow other candidates and release the returns before the nomination contest is decided.
The comments came during the first of two debates ahead of the South Carolina primary Saturday. Romney, who won the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, is the front-runner.
Romney offers robust defense of Bain tenure
Mitt Romney was grilled about his work at Bain Capital in a nationally televised Republican presidential debate Monday.
Romney said Bain Capital did its best to grow companies and create jobs. He said venture capital is a major part of the economy, and he's proud to be part of it.
Romney said Bain's investments weren't always successful and some of its companies went bankrupt. But he said the firm had a record of building strong businesses.
Romney has come under attack by rivals including Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum for his work at Bain. Romney acknowledged President Barack Obama would probably criticize his record at Bain if Romney becomes the GOP nominee.
Santorum on defense over votes in Congress
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is on the defensive against criticism for his votes supporting President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law and his rejection of anti-union legislation.
The former senator from Pennsylvania said Monday in a debate of presidential candidates in South Carolina that it was a mistake to vote for Bush's signature sweeping education overhaul. He now wants to repeal it. And he said he voted against right-to-work legislation only because his state was against it. Santorum says he supports right-to-work legislation.
He made the comments in response to criticism from Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Santorum is presenting himself as the conservative alternative to Romney, who is the front-runner in the South Carolina primary on Saturday.
Paul promises deep cuts in military spending
Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul says he will make deep cuts to the military budget even though many voters in South Carolina and elsewhere are employed by the military.
The Texas congressman was grilled Monday on his position on military spending during a nationally televised presidential debate. He has called for closing bases overseas and reducing spending on what he calls the military industrial complex.
Paul said he wants to protect military jobs domestically and insists there's a difference between military spending and a strong national defense.
Paul said conservatives should insist on cutting spending on military projects, not just domestic spending. He said overseas military spending should be cut before trimming federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployment.
Perry defends states' rights
Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry is blasting the Obama administration for intruding on states' rights.
In a Republican debate in South Carolina Monday night, the Texas governor said the state "is at war with this federal government and this administration."
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He criticized the Obama administration for slapping down South Carolina's voter identification law, which would require voters to show a photo ID before casting a ballot. He also objected to the Justice Department suing the state over its tough immigration law.
The Texas governor said the most egregious example of federal government overreach was the National Labor Relations Board intervening in a right to work state. He was referring to a ruling against Boeing, which moved production from Washington to South Carolina.
Perry called the federal actions "irresponsible" and "unconstitutional."