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 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 its criticism of the 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.
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